BWW Review: GIRLFRIEND from TheaterWorks (at the Wadsworth)
Summer 1993 was an eventful year for this reviewer. I had just graduated from High School and was preparing for the next chapter in my life - college in Athens, Georgia. Like so many young people before me and so many after, it was a time in between, one that was both thrilling and completely terrifying. But it was also the beginning of a journey of self-discovery and an opportunity to redefine who I was and who I would be as a newly minted adult. So, it was particularly poignant to see the newest production from TheaterWorks (performed at the Wadsworth due to their current remodel), the musical GIRLFRIEND, with a book by Todd Almond and music by 90's rocker, Matthew Sweet.
Set in Nebraska, that same summer that I was making my own transition to college, GIRLFRIEND tells the story of Will (David Merino) and Mike (CJ Pawlikowski), two unlikely friends both trying to determine their own direction in life, who share a bond over Matthew Sweet's album of the same title. And like so many love stories in the 1990's, it all starts with a mix tape - that subtle (or not so subtle) way of conveying feelings without having to be direct, or, god forbid, actually talk to someone. Will, an awkward and somewhat shy young gay man is the recipient of the tape - given to him by Mike, the stereotypical jock/prom king type. As Will tries to determine Mike's intentions, the friends bond over repeated trips to the drive in to watch a bad movie about a superhero nun, and of course, rock out to Matthew Sweet's music. Over the summer insecurities are laid bare, true feelings rise to the surface, and tensions rise while the two friends determine what comes next for each of them in life, and in love.
GIRLFRIEND is somewhat unique when it comes to jukebox musicals. Rather than try and inorganically make existing songs fit the plot, for the most part, Matthew Sweet's often haunting anthems fit in more as the soundtrack to these two characters' summer. While the songs and lyrics often mirror the feelings bubbling under the surface, they are positioned where music in 1993 took place - the stereo, the car, headphones and through live performances. Sweet's music is the perfect fit for such a story as this, filled with longing, angst, and young passion. Todd Almond's book is funny, touching, and filled with semi-realistic dialogue that layers the story in such a way to build anticipation with the audience and to build to a thrilling, yet touching close. Rob Ruggiero's direction is nuanced and solid and he is able to bring out the tension and anticipation from the two actors in each and every scene. Mr. Ruggiero does with GIRLFRIEND what he has done so well with so many other TW productions (NEXT TO NORMAL, GEORGIA MCBRIDE, CONSTELLATIONS), capture the human connections and universal experiences in each encounter on stage.
As a musical with just two characters, GIRLFRIEND requires a lot from its two actors, and David Merino and CJ Pawlikowski do an excellent job. Mr. Merino gives us a Will who is unsure in where the relationship with Mike is going and as to his next step in life, but with the confidence that he will see where it takes him. He captures the awkwardness that so many of us felt at that age and the energy and enthusiasm of a life ahead (even if that life is not quite clear yet.) Mr. Pawlikowski's Mike is, in many ways, the polar opposite. He is an enigma in many ways - the handsome and popular jock who is just as awkward and insecure when it comes to navigating uncharted waters. Both actors have very strong voices with many opportunities to deliver tight harmonies and hauntingly beautiful melodies. They bring a fresh and raw energy to the piece, building intensity and anticipation over the course of the 80 minutes of the show and are thrilling to watch.
Delivering a rock musical featuring the music of Matthew Sweet also hinges on a top-notch band, and with GIRLFRIEND, that is definitely the case. Under the nimble direction of Evan Zavada, the small but mighty band provides both soaring anthems (such as the hit title song) and soft love ballads beautifully. Brian Prather's set design is simple, yet quite functional, Blair Gulledge's costumes are spot on (brought back memories of my own flannel and t-shirt days) and Rob Denton's lighting and Joshua D. Reid's sound are equally strong.
TheaterWorks' GIRLFRIEND runs at The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT through April 28th. The Wadsworth is located at 600 Main St, Hartford, CT 06103. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. For more information call 860-527-7838 or go to theaterworkshartford.com.
MID PHOTO 1: CJ Pawlikowski
BOTTOM PHOTO: David Merino