Through June 10
4200 Campbell Ave, Arlington
We never actually meet the girlfriend in “Girlfriend,” Todd Almond’s coming-of age musical making its D.C.-area premiere at Signature Theatre in a terrifically charming production staged by out director Matthew Gardiner. Yes, she’s referred to here and there, but the real story centers on ostensibly mismatched teenage boyfriends experiencing the awkward throes of first love.
It’s the summer after high school graduation in small-town Nebraska circa early 1990s, and popular college -bound athlete Mike (Lukas James Miller) and Will (out actor Jimmy Mavrikes), an unfocussed but clever outcast, are biding their time before entering into the next chapter of young adulthood. An unlikely pair drawn together by a love for a certain alt rock album (cassette played on boom box), they start hanging out as friends but slowly, and awkwardly, the relationship moves toward romance.
Theirs is not the most conducive environment for a budding same-sex fling, but the guys make the most of it, spending many summer nights at the local drive-in repeatedly watching “Evangeline,” a comic-book movie about a superhero nun. Initially, there’s very little talking, or touching. They’re stiff and uncomfortable. But they begin to relax, and when the pair begin running errands together, it’s clear that things are getting a little serious.
“Girlfriend” unfolds over one summer of phone calls, music, movies and driving around. Misha Kachman’s set is a strip of bright green Astroturf with generic teen bedrooms on either side. In the center are two chairs that serve as Mike’s car. Miller and Mavrikes, young actors with big futures ahead of them, give pitch-perfect performances.
It’s fascinating to watch Miller’s popular, prom king runner-up Mike grappling with his growing attraction to outsider Will. And it’s equally interesting to see how self-deprecating and lonely, yet self-aware Will responds when his good-looking, overachiever crush expresses interest in him. Almond’s script rings true to life, touching and funny, but never overdone. He captures the essence of first love and all that that entails, especially for two gay boys who must remain guarded; revealing their authentic selves could prove dangerous. Guided by director Gardiner, the actors share a combustive chemistry that makes the production that much more memorable.
The 90-minute musical was inspired by Matthew Sweet’s 1991 alternative-rock album also titled “Girlfriend” which includes pop ballads like “I’ve Been Waiting” and “Looking at the Sun.” Sweet wrote the music when he and his wife were ending their marriage, yet Almond smartly uses these very same songs to tell the story of two young guys at the very onset of their romance. Mavrikes and Miller, both excellent performers, are backed by a powerful onstage four-woman band.
Sweet’s songs are filled with youth, romance and heartbreak. Almond adds the angsty feelings and all the excitement and butterflies surrounding your first boyfriend or girlfriend. As gay teenagers in the Midwest, Will and Mike’s finding each other feels completely natural yet it’s also a monumental, seismic experience. While their getting together isn’t entirely without challenges, they manage to create a summer that under other circumstances would have been a definitely lonelier and possibly grim couple of months.
“Girlfriend” is sure to resonate for anyone who’s fallen in love, but particularly gay audiences. Let’s hope the show’s run is extended through the end of June in celebration of Pride month.