Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
Will (David Merino) and Mike (CJ Pawlikowski) are about to graduate from high school in Alliance, Nebraska. Mike is a well-built baseball player who has a girlfriend. He's the good-looking jock. Will had a tough time of it in school; he is gay and, during the 1990s, found his situation to be painful and fretful. Not destined for college, he is nonetheless joyously relieved to have completed school. Mike shares and sends a tape mix of his songs with Will. Each listens, on either side of the stage, to the lyrics. Attracted to one another, a new relationship blossoms during a transitional summer.
Mike's idea of a good time is an evening at the local drive-in theater, so he takes his date (Will) there again and again and again. The plot of the movie involves a nun who also assumes other identities, including an alien. The coming-of-age bond between the two teenagers gently evolves; Will is tentative and slower to trust while Mike is aware of some implications as he couples with Will.
The music TheaterWorks actualizes and the actors' deliveries create many special moments. Pawlikowski has impressive range and pitch. Merino oftentimes provides excellent harmony and, upon occasion, two of the band's vocalists chime in, too. It is all quite pleasing and, through the melodies, even soothing.
The vocals, sometimes expressing heartfelt emotion, sneak up on the listener. Sweet's lyrics, in combination with Almond's book, are telling and increasingly revealing. Being gay in Nebraska during the early 1990s was problematic and bullying was certainly a real risk for a teenage boy.
The title of the show is taken directly from the name of Sweet's record. The composer has commented that he spent a fair portion of time, during that epoch of time in Nebraska, doing a lot of driving (and, perhaps, musing) around the nearby countryside. Almond took Sweet's musical numbers and added spoken words. The first production of Girlfriend took shape at Berkeley Rep in 2010.
Producing Artistic Director Rob Ruggiero has many times demonstrated a fine, innate touch for small, emotional works. Once again, he succeeds in realizing a work's promise. Evan Zavada, as musical director, is also pivotal. Conducting and playing keyboard, he facilitates a fresh, collective soundthe perfect complement for the performers. Set design is by Brian Prather.
The opening number, "I've Been Waiting," as well as "Evangeline" and the finale "I Wanted to Tell You" (many more could be noted) fuel a production that combines sensitivity with artistry. The two actors perform with compassion, feel, and timing. The product is neither heavy-handed nor overly affected. Girlfriend is warm, lively, and sometimes romantic. It all adds up to an entertaining evening that subtly compels but never overwhelms.
TheaterWorks' Girlfriend, through April 28, 2019, at the Wadsworth Atheneum theatre space, 600 Main St., Hartford CT. For information and tickets, call 860-527-7838 or visit twhartford.org.