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February 6, 2013

Theater: Fall in love with ‘Girlfriend’

Matthew Sweet’s 1991 release Girlfriend was essentially his breakup album, recorded shortly after his divorce in 1990. The play “Girlfriend,” written using Sweet’s album as inspiration and a soundtrack by Todd Almond, is a story about the ups, downs and awkward moments of young love. “It’s funny how the album ended up showing everything I needed to feel,” Sweet told Rolling Stone at the time. “Everything I needed as an antidote is there.” So naturally, Almond must have noticed, a breakup album would contain all the highs and lows of love lost and found — and would make a perfect soundtrack to a story about two high school grads who find love during their last summer free of responsibility.

The catch? The grads in “Girlfriend” are both male, which adds a whole other element to the first-love scenario but does it in a way everybody can relate to. Perhaps Will and Michael’s journey is a little tougher than the average hetero couple because they have to keep their budding relationship under wraps from the small-town community from which they’re both trying to escape. Not only are they falling in love for the first time, they’re also dealing with isolation, feeling different and not being accepted by friends, peers and parents.

But who hasn’t felt alienated at one time, especially in high school? The beauty of the story is that everyone can relate to the awkwardness that comes with falling in love: Who reaches for the hand first? Who makes the first call? Who goes to bed with a permanent smile because their crush said yes to a date? Who makes a mixtape to express how they feel when they can’t quite articulate it themselves? It’s in these nervous, anxious moments where the actors shine.

Ryder Bach plays Will, your typical nerdy outcast who generally keeps to himself and carries a journal. He’s a loner. That is, until he gets a call from jock and Mr. Popular Mike (played by Curt Hansen) asking him to the drive-in. Will is both baffled and thrilled. As the two continue to meet night after night, their bond becomes stronger as they grow closer. And as the up-tempo songs intermingle with the passion and apprehension — “I’ve Been Waiting,” “Looking at the Sun,” “I Wanted to Tell You” — the audience can’t help but feel like it’s them leaning in for that first kiss.

It’s loud and in-your-face emotion, partly because the all-girl band is on the stage as well, right behind the action. Featuring musical veterans Julie Wolf, Sara Lee and Kelly Richey, and local drummer Jyn Yates, the band perfects Sweet’s music and plays it in the tone it needs to be delivered. When emotions run high, it’s loud and raw. When things go melancholy, it’s soft and tender. Each musician’s résumé is impressive by its own merit, so having four of them playing on one stage is worth the price of admission alone.

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