curtain call

‘Girlfriend’ takes queer love back to the ’90s — with a happy ending

Girlfriend PrideArts
(l to r) Peter Stielstra and Joe Lewis in ‘Girlfriend’ at PrideArts. Photo by Jenni Carroll

Welcome to Curtain Call, our mostly queer take on the latest openings on Broadway and beyond.

The Rundown: 

With a book by Todd Almond and the pop-culture legendary songs of Matthew Sweet’s 1991 album of the same name, Girlfriend trades in the nostalgia of a simpler time… even when things weren’t so simple, especially for two closeted teens in Nebraska.

No social media or even ubiquitous home internet existed in 1993, when the one-act, two-character musical is set — on the one hand, that eliminated the possibility of cyberbullying, but on the other, it was easier for a young, rural gay man to feel alone. Girlfriend puts a positive spin on early queer love with the help of a live band rendering Sweet’s catchy melodies, recalling indie gay films of the ‘90s without the typical tragic ending. After its 2010 premiere in Berkeley, California, and runs in New York, Los Angeles, and D.C., Girlfriend now premieres in Chicago at PrideArts, with Artistic Director Jay Españo at the helm.

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No Tea, No Shade: 

Girlfriend is a simple story: two boys fall in love the summer after high school graduation. Will (Joe Lewis) is a verbose outcast in an oversize MTV tee, while Mike (Peter Stielstra) is a quiet college-bound baseball player. Both share a love of music, and just before school ends, Mike makes Will a mix tape and invites the latter to the drive-in. What follows is in many ways a typical story of first love, except it isn’t: Mike has a girlfriend in another town, who he subsequently breaks up with for reasons he’s just beginning to understand, and Will is crushing on Mike but isn’t sure about next steps — in relationships, identity or life in general. And what will happen when Mike decides to leave early for university?

Having come of age in the 1990s, albeit several years younger than Girlfriend’s characters, I quickly gravitated toward Sweet’s score, which I hadn’t heard in at least a decade but immediately, vividly remembered, and the pre-internet era of driving around in a small town, listening to music and watching the same movie over and over, all while longing to express feelings I couldn’t yet verbalize.

Girlfriend PrideArts
(l to r) Peter Stielstra and Joe Lewis in ‘Girlfriend’ at PrideArts. Photo by Jenni Carroll

Almond’s book doesn’t sugarcoat the past — Mike and Will are subjected to slurs and catcalls when one innocently touches the other’s shoulder in public. Mike has a tumultuous relationship with his father—but at the same time, relishes the sweet naivete of falling for the person you were always meant to, even when you know it won’t last.

Director Españo falls down a bit in pacing: despite Girlfriend’s 90-minute runtime, PrideArts’ production takes a while to pick up. The trick of a slow-burn romance is to relish the longing gazes and unspoken words while keeping the audience engaged and invested. Occasionally, especially early on, I felt myself tuning out during yet another meaningful silence between Will and Mike, even though I was rooting for the characters and their budding relationship.

Let’s Have a Moment:

Throughout the summer, Will and Mike watch the same drive-in movie: a campy sci-fi called Evangeline about a nun-cop-alien-superhero with a crucifix she’s not afraid to use. Mike loves the film and Will doesn’t understand it but is willing to go along to spend time with his crush. At first, these occasions are full of stilted, mumbled conversations, but one night, both boys open up, imagining scenarios for Evangeline and while singing Sweet’s tune of the same name and rocking out, at once self-conscious and free, the way only teens can. It’s a beautiful moment of personal connection to Will and Mike and deeply relatable to anyone who’s ever been young and in love.

The Last Word:

The Washington Post called Girlfriend, “[a] tenderly truehearted rock musical that seems primed for cult-hit status.” The sweetly sentimental show is ideally suited for PrideArts Center’s intimate studio setting, and Lewis and Stielstra’s tender chemistry and soulful voices make for an enjoyable, if occasionally slow, evening.

Girlfriend plays through September 25 at PrideArts in Chicago.

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