By Karen Isaacs
Nothing in Girl Friend now at TheaterWorks in Hartford through Sunday, April 28 will surprise you. It may be billed as a ‘90s rock musical, but the music seemed to me on the softer rock side and the plot is predictable except for one twist, which is not that is uncommon today.
This short (85 minute) musical is based on the 1991 pop album of the same name by Matthew Sweet. The CD achieved respectable success and is a favorite of many. It is about love and fear of love.
Playwright Todd Almond has used ten songs from the original CD and added a plot – also about young love. But in this telling, two recent high school graduate boys are falling in love. It’s set in Alliance, Nebraska in 1993 and Will and Mike have just graduated. Mike is the high school football captain going on to college on a full-ride scholarship while Will has no plans and is just glad high school is over. But something has been percolating beneath the surface. Will is gay and Mike has expressed some friendship to him; he’s given him a mixed tape of his favorite music.
OK – I’m sure you can guess where this is going.
As Will listens to the tape, Mike calls and soon they are watching some sort of superhero movie at the local drive in. The air is wrought with tension; Mike may talk about his girlfriend but she seems nebulous and when he notices some friends at the drive in, he goes to talk to them so they won’t come over to the car.
As the weeks of summer go by, the calls and the trips to the drive in continue. The relationship is slow going. Will and Mike reveal more about themselves; Will has been bullied in school for being gay and Mike is tired of trying to live up to his father’s expectations. He finally decides to leave for college early, but Will tries to convince him to stay. Before Mike goes, both acknowledge that the relationship is more than friends and Mike goes public with his feelings for Will in front of his friends.
It is a story of first love and of finding yourself; but there is hardly any conflict. At most it is Mike’s fear of letting the world know (or at least his father and his friends) rather than anything else.
That might have been fine, if there had been any subplot of other characters. But this focuses exclusively on Will and Mike.
That leaves it up to director Rob Ruggiero and his cast David Merino as Will and C. J. Pawlikowski as Mike to make it all work. If at first I felt that Mike looked a bit too old for an 18-year-old, Pawlikowski soon had me believing it. It is the more subtle role; Mike is more controlled in his expressions and actions. Yet Pawlikowski lets us feel and see the tensions just beneath the surface.
Merino makes Will a teddy bear or puppy dog. He just seems floppy and carefree yet he too shows us that under the surface much more is going on.
Both do an excellent job with the songs, backed by a five piece combo led by conductor Evan Zavada who did the music direction as well.
This is the first show of three that will be produced at the Wadsworth Atheneum while TheaterWorks’ own building is undergoing extensive renovations/improvements. It is a typical proscenium stage and auditorium. Capacity is slightly larger than at TheaterWorks itself; it does not feel as intimate as the other.
Brian Prather has designed an effective set. Both the lighting by Rob Denton and the sound design by Blair Gulledge were excellent.
Girl Friend is enjoyable but at times it feels too much like a Hallmark movie.
For tickets visit TheatreWorks Hartford or call 860-527-7838,
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