When Matthew Sweet recorded and released his hit album Girlfriend in 1991, it was his post-divorce musical reflection. Whether he could have foreseen it becoming the soundtrack to a coming-of-age musical about a summer romance between two teenage boys in Nebraska is irrelevant. Signature Theatre’s touching, charming, and 90s nostalgic musical Girlfriend is less about the intention of Sweet’s album and more about the connection created by music between two people. That’s the fantastic thing about when you’re a teenager and you listen to a great album — all the songs feel like they were written just for you.
That sentiment is what kicks off Girlfriend the musical (with a book written by Todd Almond and the music and lyrics are all selected tracks from Girlfriend the album), when loner, neurotic Will (Jimmy Mavrikes) receives a tape of Sweet’s album from the popular jock Mike (Lukas James Miller) at the end of their senior year of high school in 1993. The musical starts with them in their respective bedrooms, rocking out to and singing along to the album. Behind the two boys, the entire performance, is a recording booth with an all-female backed live band.
The band members occasionally provide vocals and curious, bemused glances at Will and Mike’s journey but mostly they serve as rock and roll guardian angels, accompanying the two boy’s love story. Any male gaze beyond Will and Mike’s growing and fumbling mutual attraction is reserved for homophobic male characters referred to off-stage (such as Mike’s dad and his fellow jock friends). Having the band visible, but behind the intimacy of the two actors is a really smart choice on director Matthew Gardiner’s part. It keeps all the exciting energy of live band without letting it interrupt the connection between the two actors.
One of the most clever aspects of the musical is how it chooses to use Matthew Sweet’s music. Sometimes it takes a more literal approach, like with the song “Your Sweet Voice,” which becomes a quiet plea between Mike and Will to give into their romantic connection. Other songs are used in a more abstract way, like the title track “Girlfriend” or “Looking at the Sun” which the two boys sing along (and jokingly dance and air-guitar along) to as a way to show their growing bond and mutual sense of playfulness with each other. The songs “Winona” and “Evangeline” morph into one song that simultaneously acts as a moment of humor and seduction.
The only actual “girlfriend” is one that Mike refers to (but we as the audience never see) as his girlfriend from another town which becomes more a way to deflect from his attraction to Will than an actual obstacle or antagonist.
Mavrikes and Miller play Will and Mike with such open-hearted youthfulness and nerviness that it’s very easy for the audience to put themselves in the teenage headspace of first love. Miller has such a puppyish energy and wide eyes that he’s very easy to fall in love with. We can immediately put ourselves into Will’s nervous, well-worn sneakers as he basks in Mike’s attention. Mavrikes plays Will like a bit of an open-wound of emotion, how a lot of teenage emotion can feel (especially since Will has felt unseen or disliked his whole young life in his hometown). Sometimes Mavrikes has a habit that shuts out the audience a bit: During emotional moments he’ll shut his eyes and get a grimace. At some points in the show it works, but he falls back on it a lot and it can become a distraction. It stands out because some of the most powerful moments in the show are when he opens his eyes, looks at Will, and his gaze is so full of raw feeling.
The biggest success of this musical, and one that Sweet will surely appreciate, is that it makes audiences (or at least me) immediately listen to the album Girlfriend on repeat right after the performance ends. Listening to the music brings back all those great feelings between Mike and Will in the show. It’s not necessarily about the early 90s fun time period nostalgia (though that exists in the show with cassette tapes and pogs strewn across Will’s desk), but the feelings of teenage passion and longing that Girlfriend the musical evokes in it’s audience. It might just be the ideal musical to kickstart the summer… because who doesn’t want a summer romance with all the energy of a first love? Especially one with such a killer soundtrack.