Welcome to the ongoing reviews of Ithaca’s own Kitchen Theatre Company with their first offering of the 2018-19 season, Girlfriend, a musical.
M Bevin O’Gara in her second season as Producing Artistic Director does double duty as director for this production. In keeping with her vision of presenting shows with a social conscious bent, Girlfriend continues in that spirit.
Playwright, composer and lyricist Todd Almond constructed Girlfriend around the songs of Matthew Sweet, a pop/rock singer/songwriter/guitarist mostly popular in the 1990s. Girlfriend spotlights young, first love. The relevance to today’s social climate is that this relationship spotlights two boys graduating from high school. One (Will) with gay affect, a rudderless soul driven by his feelings, and the other (Mike), a popular jock, college bound, closeted kid with a girlfriend that we never meet.
The slim plot begins with Mike giving Will a cassette mix tape, indicative of the time period. This is a huge deal for Will as he didn’t even know Mike knew him let alone thought about him. And mix tapes took a lot of work to prepare – an act of love one might say. Very different from the drag and drop world we now live in. There is an obvious attraction between the two, but it takes almost the entire show for them to get up the courage to break the gay ice. This tension keeps the drama going in what is otherwise a pretty much dramaless piece.
The stage was almost completely void of settings, mostly a bean bag chair, table, phone, some magazines, plastic milk crates. Being a musical, there was a band set up backed into a corner off the stage, but part of it as well, and adorned to suggest a small club stage or someone’s garage practice room. The band’s four members played bass, guitar, keyboards, and drums, and 3 of them sang back-up vocals as well. Due to their placement, about a third of the audience couldn’t see them, which was unfortunate. Scenic designer, Daniel Zimmerman’s large backdrop that covered the entire back wall of the stage was a mystery to me. Ugly and uninteresting in any way, I could not understand it’s meaning or value.
Both Will, (Jonathan Melo), and Mike (Woody White) were quite believable in their roles, and both sang well, blending beautifully at times. The songs were peppy and accessible. I was wishing the sound was better. It’s a challenge to pull off a musical with a live, electric band in such a small space (99 seats in ¾ round). In an effort to keep the sound levels manageable, the result was a rock accompaniment with no roll. The bass was non-existent and the drums had to be played so politely that they had no punch. As a result, the songs had nowhere near the energy of the original recordings. I believe this can be improved upon.
O’Gara’s direction was basic – nothing striking one way or another. The stage space was large and much unused. This could have been better thought out.
Choreographed by Harmony Malone, all dancing seemed organically integrated with the action, which was nice. It wasn’t like, “OK, now we’re going to have a dance routine”.
Mason McDowell was music director and keyboardist/vocalist. He even sang a solo song to good effect. Some of the sound choices though, like heavy reverb on the lead guitar, were not indicative of the sound at the time and need to be re-thought. Paula Arzac Baird played bass, Ian Cummings was on drums and both sang back-up vocals. Thom Dunn, who has an impressively diverse resume, was on lead guitar. The play opened with a guitar solo that I thought was a mistake. Unfortunately, his guitar playing is not up to professional standards in my book.
Megan Parker was responsible for the minimal costume choices, and Danielle Moyal handled the few props. Sean Woods’ sound design was inconsistent – seemed as though some sound cues were missed, but hopefully will be resolved in subsequent performances. Brendan Komala is technical director and Jennifer Schilansky kept the ball rolling as production stage manager.
All in all this show is a romp, but does illuminate the awkwardness of a first love, burdened by society’s scrutiny of same sex relationships. Almond’s dialog is natural and effective. Melo and White are delightful and great choices, providing some funny, some tender moments. If you want to be entertained by a couple of good singer/actors this show may be for you.
Girlfriend runs through September 30 at the Percy Browning Performance Space, 417 W. State St./ MLK Jr. St., Ithaca NY 14850. Tickets can be obtained by calling 607-272-0570, online at kitchentheatre.org/tickets.html, or at the theater box office at 409 W. State St. M-F 10-6.