Berkeley Rep has been on a roll lately premiering rock musicals, sending “Passing Strange” and “American Idiot” to Broadway. But hopes that history might repeat itself seem misapplied to “Girlfriend,” a show less suited for the bigtime than for tiny venues where its flyweight content might seem charmingly casual rather than simply undernourished. Built (albeit flimsily) around songs from Matthew Sweet’s classic titular album, in present form, this g.f. looks most apt for regional gay stages or small music venues a la early “Hedvig.”
Matching Sweet’s 1991 power-pop disc — a loose concept album charting the rise and fall of a decidedly hetero love — to a gay teenage romance by Todd Almond seemed a curious conceit. Unfortunately, it makes no more sense onstage than it did on paper. Not that the irresistible tunes themselves don’t remain a pleasure. But Almond’s characters and situations (“plot” would be too strong a word) are too sketchy and uneventful to lend them any new meaning — or even as much as they had originally.
Nor does Les Waters’ production lend substance, a surprise given his two superbly handled recent Berkeley Rep premieres: Pulitzer-winning “In the Next Room” and Naomi Iizuka’s “Concerning Strange Devices From the Distant West.”
In an early 1990s Nebraska small town, gawky Will (Ryder Bach) is thrilled by his freedom from high school — but even more so by the mystifying friendship overtures of football-star/prom-king type Mike (Jason Hite), who’s handed him a cassette of Sweet’s disc.
Mike invites Will to a drive-in movie for a disastrous, unacknowledged first date. Yet they repeat it the next night, then again and again until a first kiss is finally broached. Their summer romance is complicated by overachiever Mike’s conflicts with an impossible-to-please father, his homophobic jock pals, and the pretense of an out-of-town girlfriend.
These aspects lend Mike a bare minimum of character detail, but Will doesn’t even get that much. He’s the obvious school gay guy who’s been picked on as a result. Yet while college-bound Mike can’t wait to bolt, Will has no plans to go anywhere. We know almost nothing of his family situation, zero about any friends beyond newbie Mike.
Moreover, Mike remembers Will from elementary school, but Will was apparently unaware of Mike’s existence until just recently. Can Will really be that oblivious? Or does his utter blankness, beyond a familiar surface of misfit sarcasms and awkwardness, simply manifest the barely there script’s carelessness?
Thesps, scribe and director do get the surface right — the still-adolescent uncertainty both verbal and physical, exacerbated by same-sex desire. Choreographer Joe Goode adds witty movement that’s not dance so much as stylized gesture and body language. But hemming and hawing only gets drama so far; even mumblecore movies eventually cough up deeper insights. “Girlfriend” is content to let its two characters karaoke Sweet songs (including three from later albums) whose unaltered lyrics variably fit even this thin context. When our protags have a mild falling out (presaging their very rote fade-out reunion), the desperate sentiments of “You Don’t Love Me” feel too big for the situation.
The leads are, vocally and otherwise, adequate to a task that doesn’t ask or allow much more. A composer-lyricist himself, Almond contributes arrangements that are pleasant but too seldom aspire toward Sweet’s recorded harmonies — save on “Your Sweet Voice,” which adds backup vocals.
Julie Wolf’s rock quartet plays in a sunken, wood-paneled “basement” behind the actors; David Zinn’s set, like the other design contributions, is nondescript. A bolder look, more intimate environs and eliminated intermission would, for starters, help “Girlfriend” seem less throw-away.