My Review: 'Girlfriend' At TheaterWorks. Sweet, Wistful And Dumb.
The show: TheaterWorks’ production of ‘Girlfriend,’ the two-actor pop-rock musical.
What makes it special: The show is being presented at the Aetna Theater at the Wadsworth Atheneum instead of its normal venue while its theater is being renovated. (TheaterWorks on Pearl Street re-opens in the fall with a new season.) Dont worry. The Aetna Theater still has that subterranean feel.
And what else?” Writer Todd Almond has taken Matthew Sweet’s 1991 cult confessional album and fashioned a sweet love story around its songs of two teens exploring first love and loss.
So who’s the girlfriend?: There’s no girlfriend. It’s about a graduating high school jock who gives a cassette tape — remember its the ‘90s — of Sweets’ songs to presumably the only gay kid in school and reaches out to him as a friend. The gay friend, who has a crush in him, is thrilled — but also confused about what the jock’s motives are. A special relationship develops.
Sounds like a lovely story, right? Nothing horrible happens, right?: Right — and it’s delicately directed by Rob Ruggiero and performed by David Merino as gay Will and CJ Pawlikowski. as jock Mike. It’s a gentle romance played sparingly in front of a fine five-piece band on stage. If only the characters — especially that of Will — were not so thinly drawn, which is disappointing on a number of levels since Almond’s show has had several productions and been in the works for years.
In what way?: The two young men have just graduated from high school in Nebraska. Jock Mike is destined for med school by a forceful (unseen) father. And Will? Other that he is gay — and adorable — we know almost nothing about him or his family or his life, really.. No, wait. His mother smokes a lot of cigarettes and his father left the family to go to Utah. OK. That’s it. So let me get this straight: After college he’ll be the only gay in a small Nebraska town of Alliance in 1993 and …what? At a certain point — despite Merino’s charm and puppiness to distract us —Will is just going to be hanging around the house for the rest of his life. At a certain point, I was rooting for Mike to flee this unambitious,, vague kid. Starcrossed lovers these are not. And you also start to wonder what was there that drew Mike to Will in the first place, other than being the only gay person in school. (Yess, I’ve already said he’s adorable but…?)
Not that Mike’;s character is so layered either but at least with his struggle with his sexuality — and this is presented so lovingly you wan’t to burst into tears when they finally kiss — gives his emotional arc somewhat of a narrative drive. With Will there is none, other than him waiting for that kiss. But both actors master subtext and what they don’t say — or do — is almost as illuminating in what they do. But you can only fill the holes of a script so much.
And the music?: Cool. Sensitive. Lyrical. Fun. The concept almost works. But there’s a song or two that’s really shoehorned into the story line in a way that verges on the absurd. (In this case, it’s “Evangeline”). The trouble with concepts like this is that when there needs to be music to connect with other emotional moments or important parts in the story-telling that warrant musical attention, there are none to be found.
That’s too bad: Yep. But you know what? I still enjoyed the show, the music, and especially the performances — despite the fact that the very talented Pawlikowski is way too old for the teen role. (His Mike must have been held back in school many, many years — but then again, he’s going to med school?)
But it’s hard not to be beguiled by young romance, first love, and a teen or two finding themselves. It’s sweetness almost trumps everything, even its dumbness. At times the show makes you want to fall in love all over again.
Who will like it? Romantics. Young lovers.and old ones, too.
Who won’t?: Those that find it difficult to get past some of the logic points.
For the kids?: Teens especially will relate.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot: Can you like and dislike a show at the same time? I think so. Listening to these two young men sing lovingly, longingly to each other, can make you simply swoon.
The basics: The show runs through April 28 — and performed at the Wadsworth Atheneum on 600 Main St., in downtown Hartford. Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. Admission is $20 to $70; with student rush with ID at $15. Talk backs re on April 9, 16 and 23. Pay what you can night ids April 10. Info at 860-527-7838 and theatetworkshartford.org.