Girlfriend brings tenderness and sensitivity to the rock musical

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      Book by Todd Almond. Music and lyrics by Matthew Sweet. Directed by Chris Lam. A Fighting Chance Productions presentation. At the NEST on Wednesday, December 11. Continues until December 21

      Amid the abundance of glittery holiday entertainment right now, Fighting Change Productions has staged an intimate coming-of-age story with its production of Girlfriend. Set to American pop-rocker Matthew Sweet’s songs, this musical tells the story of a romantic relationship between two boys during the summer following their high-school graduation. Through their relationship, the teenagers gain a sense of identity and contemplate how they fit into their worlds.

      The production captures the heart of the story in a sweet and sensitive way, but could afford to take more risk.

      Set during the 1990s in Nebraska, the musical follows the relationship of social outcast Will and popular athlete Mike. Through their nightly hangouts, they develop a relationship that leads to sexual awakening. As the summer nears its inevitable end, both teens are also faced with major life choices.

      What drives Girlfriend is Sweet’s music. The catchy, upbeat “I’ve Been Waiting” starts the show off with a bang; the playful “Girlfriend” draws Will and Mike together and captures the essence of youthful joy; and the tender “Your Sweet Voice” sings with newfound emotional maturity. Both actors, Scott McGowan (as Mike) and Julian Galipeau (as Will), are strong singers. In particular, McGowan shows impressive vocal and style range, from beautiful falsetto to soulful, deep delivery. McGowan and Galipeau’s talents are matched by a four-piece band that also provides backup vocals.

      McGowan creates a believable and touching portrayal as Mike. At the beginning of Girlfriend, he shows awkwardness around his sexual identity, but layers that with a clear drive to get past this struggle. McGowan commits to his character’s journey, graduating from painful self-consciousness to confidently choosing his own path.

      Galipeau has a tough job in portraying Will, who’s nowhere near as developed as Mike. Will is written as a flat character with a minimal arc. Galipeau plays Will as being overly awkward, maintaining that same level of discomfort throughout the show. He also seems rushed at certain times, instead of allowing the audience to really engage with his thoughts and emotions.

      Director Chris Lam has staged Girlfriend in a theatre-in-the-round setting, with the audience on two sides facing each other, and band members on each of the other two ends. Galipeau and McGowan frequently rotate around the set, effectively giving turns to each side of the audience to see the story up-close-and-personal. However, it’s a bit odd when Lam stages the two actors to face the band, as this blocks out the audience.

      The production is conservative, with not a lot of physical intimacy between the two actors. At one point, after spending the night together, Mike tells Will to put on his clothes, which doesn’t make any sense, as Will is already fully clothed. For a story about young men experiencing sexual awakening, Lam could have pushed the sexuality and edginess of the show.

      Girlfriend could benefit from a little more drive and energy in general—especially given the minimal set and production value. The pacing could be improved; there’s a section near the beginning that is slow and lacks fire, which risks losing the audience early on.

      So, while numbers such as “Girlfriend” and “Evangeline” boost the show’s energy level from time to time, dialling up the sexual spark would make a huge difference in lifting Girlfriend overall and keeping the audience engaged.

      That said, this production approaches the subject matter with welcome tenderness and sensitivity. During a season full of light holiday entertainment, it’s nice to take some time out to enjoy an intimate theatre experience with some genuine moments.