‘Girlfriend’ sets the songs of Matthew Sweet to a gently funny, poignant romance at Diversionary
Todd Almond’s two-character musical is smartly constructed but a little thin on story, narrative tension
With its irresistibly tuneful melodies and such aching-for-connection song titles as “Reaching Out,” “I Wanted to Tell You” and “I’ve Been Waiting,” the music of the ‘90s alt-rock ace Matthew Sweet feels as if it’s just been waiting to be matched with a story of romantic longing.
And that’s what it gets with “Girlfriend,” the writer Todd Almond’s gently affecting — if thinly scripted — stage adaptation of Sweet’s same-named 1991 album.
The show, now getting a well-acted, understated local premiere under Stephen Brotebeck’s direction at Diversionary Theatre, can feel almost like a theatrical tone poem — as much a mood as a musical at times.
But if that can make for a muted sense of dramatic tension, it’s still fitting for a story about two people who can’t express openly what’s in their hearts (at least at first), and have to rely on music to do the reaching out for them.
There’s no girlfriend in “Girlfriend” — at least not one who’s ever seen. She’s talked about a little dismissively by Mike (Michael Louis Cusimano), the just-minted Nebraska high-school grad and football star who has struck up an out-of-the-blue friendship with his more anonymous ex-classmate, Will (Shaun Tuazon).
What those two bond over is music — specifically Sweet’s songs, presented within the story as the work of some fictional unnamed act but played at Diversionary by a very real, hard-rocking quartet led by keyboardist/music director Kyrsten Hafso-Koppman.
When Mike and Will sing along to “We’re the Same,” it’s clear their sense of synchrony goes a lot deeper than the Cure posters that adorn both of their bedrooms (on Yi-Chien Lee’s lovingly detailed, split-location set).
And the lyrics “I don’t have to ask and you’ll guess what I’m seeking / You don’t need to hide what you know” represent a breakthrough moment for Mike, who seems to have spent a lifetime in denial about his sexual identity, and in terror about what would happen if his strict dad and narrow-minded friends found out he was gay.
It’s a different struggle for the less closeted Will, who was bullied at school and now has to let his excitement at this budding new relationship (“My life is becoming the musical I always thought it should be!,” he exults early on) be tempered by the realization that Mike, who’s about to head off to college, might not ever be ready for him.
Both Cusimano, an accomplished leading man in Lamb’s Players’ “Once” and elsewhere, and Tuazon, a tremendously versatile San Diego actor with a great comic touch, make the blend of tension and affection between Mike and Will feel almost palpable.
They harmonize well (vocally and otherwise), and Cusimano’s expressive singing voice is complemented by his guitar-playing.
There’s such an appealing sweetness (no pun intended) to the pair’s scenes at a drive-in, where stretches of awkward silence are punctuated by Will’s amusingly clueless comments: “She uses that crucifix for so many things!,” he says of Evangeline, the heroine of a comically odd movie the two see almost nightly.
“Evangeline” is also the title of a Sweet song, and it points to how resourcefully Almond salts the music into the story. That number is turned into a bit where Will and Mike goof around at “making up” lyrics to the movie’s instrumental theme; in other places, as on the sizzling title track, the two are just rocking out to the stereo together — or, on “I Wanted to Tell You,” to the live band itself.
That last song — in a scene boosted by Stephen Jensen’s sound, Curtis Mueller’s lighting and Brooke Nicole Kesler’s costumes — gets a killer rendition from Hafso, drummer Nobuko Kemmotsu, bassist Christian Reeves and guitarist Melanie Medina, who delivers a searing solo.
And while the show’s finale (which arrives with the same song) feels a little pat, Sweet’s words once again get to the heart of things: “I wanted to tell you what I couldn’t say / but it took me a long time to see.”
When: 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