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Girlfriend Tracks the Tale of a Summer Romance

Signature Theatre explores first love.

Jimmy Mavrikes (Will) and Lukas James Miller (Mike) in Girlfriend, directed by Matthew Gardiner, at Signature Theatre.
(© Christopher Mueller)

If you're a fan of romance, then look no further than Signature Theatre's Washington, DC, premiere of the musical Girlfriend, which puts a unique spin on a familiar story. With book by Todd Almond and music and lyrics by power-pop icon Matthew Sweet, Girlfriend is set in 1993 in small-town suburban Nebraska in the summer after graduation from high school.

Will (Jimmy Mavrikes) is thrilled to be liberated from having to study every day. He delights in smelling newly cut grass and listening to his favorite mixtapes. He doesn't know what he'll do in the future and he doesn't care. Meanwhile, Mike (Lukas James Miller) has been studious throughout high school and now he's off to college, studying premed, and is happy to get away from his overbearing father. According to Will, Mike was a superstar jock in high school, so when Mike asks Will if he'd like to go to a drive-in movie, Will is astonished and delighted. He doesn't know why he's been asked, but he's dying to go, anxious to even talk to Mike.

As they get ready in their separate bedrooms, Mike and Will sing the show's first number, the duet "I've Been Waiting." The song is an upbeat hymn to the fact that they have noticed each other in school but never spent time together. When they get to the drive-in, Will talks a blue streak as they sit in Mike's car, watching a cult fantasy film. Will is really bored with the nonsensical movie, but Mike is willing to watch it, presumably because it allows him to be with Will. After the first night at the drive-in, Mike asks Will out again to the same drive-in that is still playing the same bad movie. The rest of the show tracks the progression of their relationship over the course of a summer.

In the hands of a lesser director, Girlfriend might seem trite. But under Matthew Gardiner's guidance, it moves along rapidly, avoiding even a whiff of sentimentality and delivering humor and surprise as Will and Mike become increasingly interested in each other.

Mavrikes is delightful as the shy, nervous Will, who has a playful, devil-may-care attitude and a warm tenor voice. He plays Will as the more sensitive and forthright of the young men. Like Mavrikes, Miller also is a tenor whose voice can drown out a bass guitar, then suddenly drop to a whisper to deliver the lyrics of a gentle song. Miller's Mike is more self-assured than Will, but also needs flattery: "Do you think I'm handsome?" he asks at one point.

Right from the start, it's clear that this production is going to approach its music in a new way. The stage is divided in half by a clear panel, where scenic designer Misha Kachman creates two rooms: Will's messy room is stage right and Mike's neat room is stage left. Behind the clear panel sit four musicians. Under the music direction of Britt Bonney, who also plays the keyboard, the band is fabulous, and the success of Girlfriend largely depends on their exuberance. Lighting designer Colin K. Bills threads a line of neon light around the band's space, further separating it from the actors' space. The rest of the set is spare, relying mainly on props like two wooden chairs that represent the seats of Mike's car. Costume designer Frank Labovitz re-creates the grunge plaid-flannel-shirts-over-T-shirt look of the 1990s.

Girlfriend is not a grand musical dealing with complex emotional and social themes. Rather, it has a small, simple focus: It's a sincere vision of what it's like to fall in love for the first time.