Girlfriend – Review by Tom Holehan

While some major renovations takes place at TheaterWorks in Hartford, the plucky theatre company remains undaunted as it moves a few blocks up the street to the Wadsworth Atheneum where a few of their productions will be presented this season. The change in location (which is a comfortable venue with more seating) does not alter the pleasures to be had in Theaterworks’ current offering, “Girlfriend”, a “90’s pop rock musical” that has charm to spare.

With a book by Todd Almond and music and lyrics by Matthew Sweet, “Girlfriend” charts, in a breezy 80 minutes (without intermission), the journey of two Nebraska teenagers, fresh out of high school and trying to find themselves. Flamboyant but shy Will (David Marino) and college-bound jock Mike (CJ Pawlikowski) go to the same high school, but it’s only upon graduation they really get to know each other. This comes out of the blue when Mike gifts Will with a mix tape (this is the 90’s, folks!) as he senses that Will shares his love of music. What follows is a series of hilarious and poignant “dates” leading these young men to the inevitable.

“Girlfriend” has an interesting history in that it began as a popular 1991 album by Matthew Sweet. A fan of the music, writer Todd Almond used eight of the 15 songs from the album to tell Will and Mike’s story. The musical only features these two characters who share the stage with a pistol-hot band of musicians/singers. Although the story is far from revolutionary, there are few people – gay or straight – who won’t be able to identify with the humor, pain and inevitability of young love. The score of “Girlfriend” is probably not going to make Stephen Sondheim lose sleep, but it serves its purpose as the glue that holds this particular couple together and, on those terms, it works beautifully.

What also works beautifully is the sheer chemistry between Marino and Pawlikowski. The musical simply would not work if it wasn’t believable that this particular couple clicks. Both actors ideally capture the reckless youth, tension, passion and sheer bliss of first love without ever resorting to cheap sentiment or romantic clichés. As I noted to my husband upon leaving the theatre, “If these guys aren’t a couple, they should be!”

Artistic Director Rob Ruggiero’s sensitive, unforced direction makes “Girlfriend” flow smoothly from scene to scene and his artistic crew delivers with a functional set design (Brian Prather), knowing costumes (Blair Gulledge), precise sound design (Joshua D. Reid) and fine lighting (Rob Denton). I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the essential contributions of the band led by conductor Evan Zavada with musicians/singers Billy Bivona, Julia Packer, Adam Clark and Elliot Wallace. “Girlfriend” is light, refreshing and sincerely unpretentious. See it.

“Girlfriend” continues at TheaterWorks’ temporary home at the Wadsworth Atheneum, 29 Atheneum Square North through April 28. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at: 860.527.7838 or visit: www.twhartford.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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