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Sara Lee

January 30, 2013

Sweet songs summon a new kind of musical

Actors Theatre presents 'Girlfriend'

Hey, Tommy, you can have rock opera … and you don’t have to be an American Idiot to appreciate a musical that follows a story arc built to complement a concept album. But how about some musical theater named after its own soundtrack? If it sounds like a trickier thing, it may also be more rewarding: Meet “Girlfriend,” which takes its name and significant inspiration from Matthew Sweet’s aggressive-alternative-meets-bittersweet-pop disc of the early ’90s.

Actors Theatre artistic director Les Waters remembers he first encountered Sweet’s breakthrough release by “turning on MTV back when people naturally turned to MTV to watch music videos … and there was the Japanese anime(-style video) to Matthew Sweet’s ‘Girlfriend,’ and I thought, ‘That’s cool’ and bought the album and have always liked it. Then it reappeared to me several years ago as Todd Almond was working.” Almond is the veteran playwright whose concept is being brought to life at Actors through Feb. 17.

The show, which has had previous stagings in New York City and Berkeley, Calif., stars Ryder Bach and Curt Hansen as brand new high school graduates. Each has questions about where he is and where he’ll go — and they turn to each other with Sweet’s tunes acting as matchmaker, guide and provocateur. Almond says, “I wanted to write about the time in one’s life when one is done with high school and it’s that summer where you have to have made a choice about what you’ll try to become. You have to know where you’re going to school or you have to get a job … and I wanted to tell a romance in that, as well. When I thought of that time in my own life, the music from Girlfriend went hand-in-hand with those memories.”

Typically song enters a show, Almond says, when “a character is so moved that (they) have to express it in song.” But in this show, “the music functions like a language of sorts between the boys. The music exists in their world — they’re listening to these songs, and they both like these songs … and as they sing them, the songs take on different meaning.” Matthew Sweet classics such as “I’ve Been Waiting” are played by an onstage rock band — an all-female quartet.

It’s a different delivery system for bringing music and drama together — but it works. Waters helped bring the show to Berkeley in 2010, and there he saw “rapid audience response … The people learned the rules of the piece very, very quickly.” The onstage set list has been adjusted over the years as, in Almond’s words, “the show has whittled itself down to the essentials … I love all the songs, but the ones that help express the story are the ones that have stayed in the show. They’re the ‘lily pads of the pond’ of this idea that help us travel across.”

When asked about Sweet’s participation, Almond first credits Sweet’s manager Russell Carter for early enthusiasm. The rock star himself has been “an encouraging supporter from the sidelines,” and Almond cites efforts that Sweet has made to get word out about the production and to make the company know they have his approval.

The playwright says he’s grateful Sweet hasn’t wanted to play backseat driver or interfere with the show’s development, “because the music is a character in the show — it’s not like the music is the show. These boys make tapes for each other that have this music on them. It is nice that he’s allowed us to stay in control, because a lot of what the writing’s about is my particular relationship through the music.”

Among the elements that will make the performances in Louisville shine are the contributions of the band. Music director Julie Wolf is leading a quartet that blends nationally recognized figures and Kentucky talents.

On bass will be the estimable Sara Lee. Wolf and Lee have each spent time with touring bands for the Indigo Girls and then Ani DiFranco, but these veterans of both road and studio have rarely shared a stage. Wolf initially hoped to bring Lee in when the show was staged in Berkeley in 2010, but now this lineup is finally in place (rounded out by Lexington’s Kelly Richey on guitar and Louisville’s Jyn Yates on drums).

Lee, whose calling card also includes her contribution to The B-52s “Love Shack” record, understands the theatrical gig’s requirements for disciplined playing, but also its opportunities for creative freedom. “Where one’s own individual style can come into play is when you’re playing more like a full song,” she says. “For example, with ‘Looking at the Sun,’ I can put in my own little notes that I would be playing in between grooves or in between chords, where someone else would choose to do something else … It isn’t set in stone by any means.”

‘Girlfriend’
Jan. 31-Feb. 17
Actors Theatre of Louisville
316 W. Main St. • 584-1205
actorstheatre.org
$35+; various times