Usually, when a musical is built around an existing album, such as American Idiot or Tommy, the book isn't so great, but the songs are awesome.
Girlfriend, which is based on the 1991 Matthew Sweet album of the same name, has the opposite problem: It would be way better as a play. Or, at the very least, it would be better as a musical with different songs.
It's a weird problem, but a good one to have. Todd Almond's book of the musical is really quite good, all stops and starts and full of the half-finished ideas that plague communication between teenagers. But the songs feel awkwardly shoved in, as if the creators suddenly remembered that this is a musical, and they should probably put the songs from the album in there somewhere.
The show, which premiered at Berkeley Rep five years ago, follows Will (Ryder Bach), a gay teen living in Nebraska in 1993. Much to his surprise, his school's golden boy, Mike (Curt Hansen), starts talking to him just before graduation, and as the two get to know each other, they slowly and tenderly fall in love.
It's a beautiful, affecting story, and Almond tells it well. The book is nicely offset by Les Waters' direction, which has a perfect cadence, alternating between long, perfectly awkward pauses and staccato quasi-banter. The actors both nail their physicality, too; Bach's Will tends to perch, like a nervous bird ready to fly away at the slightest provocation, while Hansen's Mike carries himself with the self-conscious swagger of an alpha male who's coming to terms with a major revelation.
But the songs! With few exceptions, they're just not right for the story. “Evangeline” and the title track fit best, but the rest seem to have been transplanted from some other show with a different tone. The problem isn't so much that the album seems to have been written from a heterosexual point of view, and the gay storyline doesn't work with that. In fact, the opposite is true — when Mike sings “I'd sure love to call you my girlfriend,” it's poignant and makes sense, since he thinks things would be so much easier if Will were a girl, if he were attracted to a girl. The problem is more with the transition into the songs — it doesn't feel organic, as if everything has built up in these characters to a point where they have to sing this particular song at this particular point in time.
Further complicating things is Bach's apathetic delivery when he speaks. Though his body is quite expressive, his speaking voice is aggravatingly flat, with no indication that anything he says — even his emotional breakdown at one point — carries any significance for him. It might be a stylistic choice, but it's one that distances Bach and his character from the audience.
Still, Girlfriend is a touching love story, well told, and that's just about enough to redeem it.
Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City; through Aug. 9. (213) 628-2772, centertheatergroup.org
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