It’s hard to imagine “Girlfriend,” the sweet, tender and innocent musical inspired by Matthew Sweet’s 1991 alternative rock album of the same title, being set in our plugged in, hyper-distracted era when mystery has been severely dented by Google and nearly every fetish has its own app.
This two-character musical, which opened Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, takes place in Alliance, Neb., in the comparatively more naïve time of 1993. Featuring a book by Todd Almond, the show unfolds in the summer between high school graduation and the daunting prospect of adulthood for two young men who don’t on the surface have much in common yet are powerfully drawn together.
Will, played by Ryder Bach, is grateful to be finished with the humiliating ordeal of high school. Bullied at school for being gay, he is so relieved to have survived all the hostility and ostracism that he hasn’t gotten around to making plans for the future.
Mike, played by Curt Hansen, is the good-looking star of the baseball team. He’s going to college in the fall to pursue pre-med to please his doctor father, but his real love is music. He’s cautious about protecting his popularity and conscientious about living up to expectations, but he’s grown tired of the play-acting that’s required for him to fit in.
Out of the blue, Mike gives Will a mix tape of favorite music. After Mike spontaneously bursts into song, Will giddily confides to us, “I thought: My life has finally become the musical I always suspected it was.”
Romance develops slowly but persistently. Mike invites Will to see a movie at the local drive-in. The film is a ludicrously violent comic-book adventure involving a nun who morphs into a superhero and space alien. Will has little interest, but he agrees to see it again and again just to sit in the same car with Mike, their bodies rigid with fear, their conversations an anxious concerto of “yeps,” “yeahs” and “ums.”
Directed by Les Waters, who staged an earlier version of the musical at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2010, the production patiently observes the characters as they tentatively move toward their first kiss. This could very well be one of the slowest courtships on theatrical record, but “Girlfriend” allows us to richly inhabit the perilous journey Mike and Will are undertaking.
They may be only reaching across the front seat of a Subaru, but in standing up to the societal forces arrayed against them, they might as well be rocketing to the moon. The show reminds us, gay and straight alike, how much courage is required to love with self-acceptance.
This is an intimate, small-scale work that finds drama in restraint. Almond’s book gives us just enough background to make sense of the psychology of the characters but no more. We hear only once in passing that Will was held down by students who wrote in permanent marker a homophobic epithet across his forehead, but we see the legacy in the way he has cut himself off from others and learned not to expect too much from anyone, including himself.
Bach, who originated the role in Berkeley, trusts that Will’s truth will emerge from all that remains unsaid. His clenched body language and muffled irony and utter surprise that something so unexpectedly nice could actually happen tell you all you need to know about his character.
Hansen, who played Gabe in “Next to Normal” on Broadway and at the Ahmanson, has charisma to spare. Mike is like the fantasy prince in a gay fairy tale, but Hansen gives him real edges. When Will tells him some of his friends are in a nearby car at the drive-in, Mike asks him to duck down. Hansen sensitively reveals Mike’s guilt and the way he doesn’t want to let the town’s small-mindedness vanquish his better self.
The only time the characters release themselves into unbridled expression is when they sing the songs from Mike’s mix tape. Sweet’s lyrics don’t directly correspond to the dramatic situation, but the feeling behind the songs — the alternative energy, the stolen freedom — is just right. It won’t be hard for anyone to relate to the way these struggling adolescents use music to claim their independence.
A rough and rousing all-female band led by Julie Wolf jams from the back of the stage in an area that resembles a cheaply finished basement. It’s a nice touch that extends a wide embrace to renegades and misfits and anyone brave enough to flip conformity the bird.
“Girlfriend” has nicely evolved since it was first done at Berkeley Rep. Sensibilities in a hurry may dismiss it as slight and sluggish, but those who can enter the rhythm of the musical may find themselves returning to some epic emotions from their youth.
Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays; 8:30 p.m. Thursdays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 9.
Tickets: $25 to $59 (ticket prices subject to change)
Info: (213) 628-2772, www.centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes, with no intermission