TheaterWorks is currently presenting an altogether terrific and lovable production of the musical, “Girlfriend.” With a book by Todd Almond and great songs by Matthew Sweet, this show traces the slowly developing and believable romance between two young men, in the few months between high school and college. As personified by the wonderful David Merino and C. J. Pawlikowski, this couple is exceedingly sweet and one really roots for everything to go well between them. Rob Ruggiero has sensitively directed this musical, which truly wears its heart on its sleeve. Backed up by a hard-rocking onstage band, “Girlfriend” at TheaterWorks is a real joy from beginning to end, and Matthew Sweet’s songs evoke a lot of the giddy feelings of falling in love for the first time.
“Girlfriend” is set in Nebraska in 1993, at a time when people still made mix tapes for each other. The story begins with David Merino, as Will, getting a mix tape from C. J. Pawlikowski’s Mike, a jock from high school whom Will didn’t previously associate with. And while both actors are just about ideal, one really follows the story through Will’s eyes, as he speaks directly to the audience, and Merino is utterly irresistible in this role. Todd Almond’s script fleshes out the boys’ increasingly budding relationship and there are more than a few scenes with both characters at a drive-in, which seems to show the same film all Summer.
Just as important as the book are the excellent songs by Matthew Sweet. From the opening number, “I’ve Been Waiting,” Sweet’s songs help deepen the curious and romantic story of these two characters, with the infectious title number being especially effective. The CD of “Girlfriend” was released in 1991, but somehow the album escaped my hearing at the time it came out. Many people will be more familiar with the music than I am, but just watching the actors deliver these songs, in between the nicely fashioned book scenes, is a real pleasure. The actors are fantastically backed up by the onstage band, led by the expect music director Evan Zavada.
Director Rob Ruggiero has really done wonders with this show, with a deft hand and a gentle touch. Indeed, the musical becomes more riveting as the show progresses. In addition to eliciting fine performances from his two actors, Ruggiero works excellently with his design team. Set designer Brian Prather successfully meets the challenge of presenting a few prominent pieces of scenery, such as a bed and two car seats, to represent specific locations on the stage, which otherwise looks suited for a rock concert.
The costume design by Blair Gulledge is colorful and entirely appropriate to the time period and the lighting design by Rob Denton helps shape the various scenes. What’s more, the sound design by Joshua D. Reid is crystal clear and perfectly timed, especially at the moments when the characters are miming getting into and out of the car.
Still, the real appeal of “Girlfriend” is the blossoming romance between these two young men, and pretty much every moment is ideally choreographed to represent that growing attraction, with none of the scenes seeming rushed or forced. With everything set to Matthew Sweet’s collection of evocative rock songs, “Girlfriend” at TheaterWorks works just beautifully and it celebrates that feeling of falling in love, with all of its awkward, unsteady, yet wonderful moments intact. Only those with a heart of stone would find this production of “Girlfriend” anything less than a deeply touching and sweetly effervescent experience.
“Girlfriend” continues performances at TheaterWorks at the Wadsworth Museum in Hartford, CT through April 28, 2019. For tickets, please visit www.twhartford.org or call the box office at 860-527-7838.
Photo: (L-R): David Merino and C. J. Pawlikowski
Photo by Lanny Nagler