Todd Almond brings Matthew Sweet’s 1991 record to life onstage through the story of two boys who fall in love.

Ryder Bach as Will and Curt Hansen as Mike in Todd Almond and Matthew Sweet's Girlfriend, directed by Les Waters, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.
Ryder Bach as Will and Curt Hansen as Mike in Todd Almond and Matthew Sweet's Girlfriend, directed by Les Waters, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.
(© Craig Schwartz)

Who would have thought that one of the major breakup albums of the early 1990s would go on to inspire one of the most sincere new musicals of the 2010s? Girlfriend, featuring a book by Todd Almond, is based on the emotional, yearning tracks of Matthew Sweet's 1991 alt-rock record of the same title. Rather than link itself to a heterosexual divorce like Sweet's source material, Almond uses Girlfriend to bring together a pair of young men in small-town Nebraska. While the 90-minute tuner isn't perfect, under the tender direction of Les Waters at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles, it vividly captures a milieu that almost everyone will relate to.

As Girlfriend begins, Will (Ryder Bach) and Mike (Curt Hansen) have just finished their last day of high school. The pair couldn't be more different: Will is gawky and flamboyant, with a head of bleached-blond hair; Mike is the handsome, all-American jock with a girlfriend who doesn't live in their small Nebraska town. This unlikely duo strikes up a summer friendship, spending their nights at the drive-in movie theater watching the same superhero movie while bonding over Mike's favorite album, Sweet's Girlfriend. A romance between the two slowly blooms.

Perhaps both the strongest suit of Girlfriend is how truthful it is. Will and Mike are two very recognizable characters played in an unabashedly human way. Bach is charmingly self-deprecating after a lifetime of being the outcast, while Hansen expertly runs the emotional gamut of someone discovering feelings he didn't know he had. Together, they're a sweet pair you can't help but root for. Almond's rhythmic text feels like everyday teenage speech. Pauses are filled with the same uncomfortable tension we felt when we were discreetly talking about love and dating with our own objects of high school affection.

There are a few trouble spots in Almond's book, a major one being the inconsistent use of Sweet's album. The book is also somewhat repetitive and the ending feels forced in its coincidence. On some occasions, the tunes are used to express Will and Mike's inner monologues, similar to the way songs are used in the musical Spring Awakening. In other cases, songs are shoehorned into the plot with the particular clumsiness of an early jukebox musical. The most glaring example is the song "Evangeline," originally inspired by the 1980s comic book character. The song is sung here at the drive-in while Will and Mike watch a fictional film modeled on this sexy vigilante nun-turned-crime-fighter. It's certainly a shock to the system; overall, Girlfriend is better, smarter, and more candid than this tactic. However, since the duo is singing about their voyage of self-discovery, one can look past the fact that the lyrics don't always fit.

Director Waters takes great pains to keep the piece in a world that resembles reality. Joe Goode provides choreography that brings to mind two guys dancing around in their living room (a single pullout sofa amid David Zinn's metallic set furthers this idea). Bach and Hansen, both of whom have very sweet voices, are given backup in the form of a kick-ass four-woman band. Julie Wolf leads the quartet as they perform unadulterated rock 'n' roll in a wood-paneled rumpus room smack in the middle of the set. Zinn's costumes are appealingly normal.

While perceptive audience members will be able to foresee the trajectory of Almond's plot within the first five minutes, it's abundantly clear that he's not particularly concerned with predictability. Almond is unapologetically telling a straightforward we-all-know-the-outcome story with as much honesty as possible. It doesn't reinvent the genre, but it does make us realize how so many modern musicals lack insincerity. It's nice to see a romance that isn't embarrassed to get a little saccharine in this very cynical age.

Featured In This Story


Closed: August 9, 2015