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Arts | Coolture

A musical set to 1990s love songs

Girlfriend-Promo-23-of-19.jpg
Michael Louis Cusimano (left) and Shaun Tuazon star in Diversionary Theatre’s “Girlfriend.”
(Simpatika)

Matthew Sweet’s ‘90s album serves as framework for “Girlfriend,” directed by SDSU’s Stephen Brotebeck

In 2010, hot on the heels of developing “American Idiot” and sending that show to Broadway, Berkeley Repertory Theatre rolled out another musical built around memorable songs from a ‘90s alt-rock favorite.

Step aside, Green Day. And step on up, Matthew Sweet.

Now, nearly a decade after “Girlfriend” premiered in Berkeley, the piece — named for Sweet’s breakthrough 1991 album and its killer title track — is finally about to make its San Diego debut.

And if you’re just now hearing that a Matthew Sweet musical exists, you also might be surprised to learn that “Girlfriend,” which begins previews today at the LGBTQ-centered Diversionary Theatre, centers on a budding relationship between two young men.

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That sort of upending of expectations is part of what sold Sweet on the project when the much-admired theater writer-musician Todd Almond first approached the rocker and his reps about his idea for the show.

“It really did appeal to me,” says Sweet, talking by phone from his Omaha home during a brief break from touring. “I liked that it had this different, fresh approach to it.”

Not only that, says Sweet, but “one of my very best friends came out at the end of high school,” echoing in some ways the story Almond had written. “So I was proud to be a part of normalizing it. In a way, it made me more excited about it.”

Almond and Sweet share common ground as Nebraska natives. And as a kid growing up gay in a small town, and feeling profoundly out of place, Almond has said he found solace in listening to the songs from “Girlfriend.”

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The musical centers on the unexpected connection between Will (played by Shaun Tuazon), a musical-theater devotee who was bullied in high school, and his popular-jock classmate, Mike (Michael Louis Cusimano). As the two contemplate life after graduation, they also slowly bond to the sound of Sweet’s songs (which will be played live by an onstage band at Diversionary).

For Stephen Brotebeck, an associate professor at San Diego State University who’s making his Diversionary directorial debut with the show, “Girlfriend” takes him back to a time when “I was making mixtapes left and right” as a ‘90s kid.

“I think what’s so great about this music and this story is that we really equate music to specific moments in our lives,” Brotebeck says. And in the case of “Girlfriend,” Sweet’s songs are “really a soundtrack to both these guys’ lives.”

For Sweet, whose biggest hit has been the ’95 single “Sick of Myself,” the only regret is he has yet to see a production of this musical valentine to his album: Every time there’s been a production somewhere in the country, he’s been on tour in a different city. (He missed a D.C.-area staging by one day about a year ago.)

But he’s gratified to know that “it’s a thing with a life of its own now. And it’s really flattering that the music can be exposed in that way.”

‘Girlfriend’

When: In previews. Opens Sept. 21. 7 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 13.

Where: Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd., University Heights

Tickets: About $27-$55 (discounts available)

Phone: (619) 220-0097

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Online: diversionary.org


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