Theater Revived the Radio Star?

Following in (if it's very lucky) the Broadway-directed footsteps of American Idiot, Girlfriend, is the latest album musical to fist pump its way across the Berkeley Rep stage.

We can call it an album musical to distinguish it from a Rock Opera (Tommy, Hair, Passing Strange) or a Movical (Billy Elliot, Spamalot, Young Frankenstein) or the Juke Box Musical, (Mama Mia, Jersey Boys). And we call it an album musical because in these days of 99 cent iTunes downloads, the music of concept and "seminal" albums has a unifying coherence that's worth keeping intact.

Folks who love Matthew Sweet's 1991 album, Girlfriend, would agree with critics who rated it as one of the top 100 pop albums of the '90s. One critic wrote that Girlfriend was the pretty record that everyone played when they were pretending to be listening to Nirvana.

If you were one of those Matthew Sweet fans, then this play, a sweet and simple chamber musical, no doubt had you at "Girlf--." I'm not sure why I wasn't listening to this music in the '90s. My radio dial was permanently tuned to Alice Radio where all good indie rock fans were stationed. I was all about Sinead and REM and it would seem I would have been a sucker for this record, which Sweet said was the outcome of his divorce. But downloading the songs now, I don't feel particularly warm or fuzzy. Or particularly impressed with the music. Or nostalgic. And for these types of gimmick and/or homage spin-offs, for which the play is itself an afterthought, the loyalty to the source material's the thing.

Like American Idiot, which grafts a plot -- or at least some character-driven action -- onto Green Day's "seminal" 2004 post-punk album of the same name, Girlfriend is a slip of a two-character play built around a record. American Idiot was mostly a 90-minute music video that rocked with rage against the general suckiness of everything.

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Girlfriend -- from the happier '90s -- is all sweetness, harmony and pop musicality. So instead of a rock musical's energy, Girlfriend (the play) is a more intimate play about relatedness. The music necessitates a love story, but how do you capture the tenderness of falling in love in a media world where a vaguely compelling movical romance requires three possible fathers, a Greek island and an impending wedding?

Make it gay. It's an ingenuous way to breathe new life into an old-fashioned love song. Put two boys in the front seat at the drive-in. Now that's a first kiss! A first gay kiss is a crackerjack way to shake each of us into remembering the power of the first kiss, all first kisses.

And so kudos to Todd Almond, who wrote the book for Girlfriend and director Les Waters who reintroduces the scary-ecstatic tension of the crush, the phone calls, the small talk, the last ditch attempt to make your breath smell better.

I can't decide if gay-ifying the story is a nifty way to distract the audience from an underwhelming narrative with underdeveloped characters and mediocre dialogue. Or a striking device to communicate the universality of romance and to reawaken our empathy for the all encompassing hugeness of the first time.

Ryder Bach and Jason Hite play two Nebraska boys who spend their summer after high school going to the same drive-in movie each night. As Will, the lighter in his loafers boy, Bach is full of wit and charisma. He's an outsider at school, the 98lb weakling to Mike, the popular football hero type. But he's also the one who knows who he is and is very comfortable in his skin. As Mike, Jason Hite is a strong singer but not as strong an actor. Their sliver of a story is sweet but it's very under baked. The play could not stand alone without the music and the music, while pleasant enough, doesn't have the power to carry the play.

There's one terrific exception where story and song are finally in sync -- as the boys sing Evangeline, pretending to be the character in the B-movie they're watching. They're goofing around and the singing seems spontaneous, not just because it's in the script. Too often, the musical performances feel slapped on and poorly integrated. The fusion of music and theater seems very very random, because this is not a simple boy meets boy story. It's a boy meets boy and they both really, really like the music of Matthew Sweet so sometimes they sing it story.

Girlfriend runs through May 9, 2010 at Berkeley Repertory Theater. For tickets and information visit berkeleyrep.org.

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