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Flat but Fun

As a teenager, I often used to imagine my life running to a soundtrack — songs of invigorating triumph to accompany my crowning moments and sad, mournful ballads to communicate the depths of my adolescent suffering.

Girlfriend fulfills this dream of every teenager, accompanying the drama and uncertainty, embarrassment, unfairness, and soaring joy that comes with first love, with music that captures its essence.

Yet, like a music video, Girlfriend is carried almost entirely by the music, with the plot merely forming a loose frame for Matthew Sweet’s mellow, melodic sounds rather than creating a compelling chain of events leading to profound changes in the characters. Though the musical has its moments, but the lack of development of both plot and characters leaves the viewer feeling rather empty.

Will and Mike have just graduated from high school in Nebraska. Tentative at first, the outgoing, athletic Mike (Jason Hite), destined for a pre-med program at the University of Nebraska, approaches a rather nerdy Will (Ryder Bach), who just seems glad to be done with high school. Though Mike asserts that he has a girlfriend, the level of discomfort and random rambling during their interactions clearly indicates that the two are engaging in the mating dance of the typical teenager.

As the story progresses, the two begin to spend more time together and, along with the usual uncertainties of adolescent dating, the issue of their homosexuality begins to cause rifts. Ultimately, Will’s realization that Mike is really going away to college and Mike’s betrayal of Will in front of his friends lead the two to split, only to be unexpectedly reunited at a New Year’s Eve concert.

The music, played by a live band on stage and sung throughout by the two actors, meshes perfectly with the details of the plot. In fact, Todd Almond wrote his book specifically to accompany Matthew Sweet’s music. As Will and Mike have their first awkward moments together, they sing “I’ve Been Waiting.” Their leaving one another is accompanied by “You Don’t Love Me,” while their reunion at the concert occurs to “I Wanted To Tell You.” The titles alone say everything.

Meanwhile, the band plays in the background, surrounded by a wood paneled living room packed with musical equipment — a scene familiar to parents of teenagers everywhere.

The nostalgic quality of the action itself easily pulls the audience in — the eager anticipation of a phone call, the nervousness of that first kiss, the utter bliss of a hand stroking a face; all of these take the audience back to their own adolescence, reminding them of the intensity of feeling and experience characteristic of that age. And the utter misery inherent in the uncertainty of how the other feels creates priceless moments for the audience.

Yet, taking a step back reveals a certain lack of overall depth and development. The audience knows very little about these two boys, their backgrounds and motivations, what compels them to act and speak as they do. We know that Mike is into sports, does not get along with his dad, and is expected to become a doctor, though he is a lover of music. But we don’t know what prompted him to approach Will in the first place. We’re not sure what it is about Will (besides his long, thin arms) that draws Mike to him.

And Will is a giant question mark. Though he talks a lot, he reveals little about himself. Who is he? What does he want (besides Mike)? What compels him to fall in love with Mike? Who was he in high school and who does he expect to become (if anyone at all)? And why do the two ultimately reunite, though they left on bad terms and haven’t spoken in months?

It seems as though the songs are expected to tell the story by themselves, but they lend more of a soundtrack quality, a communication of current thoughts and feelings, rather than actually developing the plot or characters beyond the immediate moment. We can, perhaps, understand Mike’s and Will’s love, but we cannot understand them.

The music is soulful and mellow, the plotline puts the audience back in those horribly awkward yet utterly exhilirating moments of first love, yet Girlfriend as a whole has not yet attained the depth of which it is truly capable.

April 14th to May 9th
Tickets: $13.50-$71