Find summer romance in 'Girlfriend' at Know Theatre

Set to the songs of Matthew Sweet's 1991 album of the same name, Todd Almond's 'Girlfriend' is about two boys just graduating from high school in Nebraska who are attracted to one another.

Aug 2, 2016 at 10:47 am
click to enlarge Montez O. Jenkins-Copeland as Will and Cary Davenport as Mike in Know Theatre's "Girlfriend" - Dan R. Winters Photography
Dan R. Winters Photography
Montez O. Jenkins-Copeland as Will and Cary Davenport as Mike in Know Theatre's "Girlfriend"

Like singer-songwriter Matthew Sweet, writer Todd Almond grew up in Nebraska. Sweet first found fame when he released the album Girlfriend in 1991, a set of tunes that powerfully influenced Almond, several years younger than the singer. Exploring the feelings of awkwardness and joy that are so prevalent in young love, its messages were firmly embedded in Almond’s psyche.

“I think that there’s an operatic-ness about love within that album,” he says.

As a gay teen, Almond yearned to have a similar experience.

“I was just feeling so alone in Nebraska, and I wanted so desperately to be in love like the people around me,” he says.

In a recent email, Almond wrote that Girlfriend was “in heavy rotation” while he was at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music from 1995 to 1999. He came to CCM to study voice, but sampled the curriculum much more broadly, singing, acting and writing.

After a decade of allowing Sweet’s songs to percolate, Almond hung them on a story of his own devising about two boys just graduating from high school in Nebraska who are attracted to one another. Will (Montez O. Jenkins-Copeland) is an awkward social outcast; Mike (Cary Davenport) is a popular athlete with a bent for music. Much to Will’s surprise, Mike initiates a friendship with the gift of a mixtape and invites him to a cheesy sci-fi movie at a local drive-in theater. That launches a summer of discovery that faces obstacles including an imminent departure for college, Mike’s disapproving father and some unthinking jock friends. But happiness is the ultimate outcome for these kindred souls.

Almond’s 2010 script repurposes Sweet’s revelatory lyrics from 1991 to reflect Will and Mike’s situation, and they really work. The opening lines of the title song, “I want to love somebody/I hear you need somebody to love,” express the nervous attraction between the young men. “I’ve Been Waiting” voices their fearful anticipation: “I didn’t think I’d find you/Perfect in so many ways/But I’ve been waiting/And I want to have you.”

Director Lindsey Augusta Mercer has a pair of actors who inhabit these roles. Jenkins-Copeland gives Will an air of sweet but uncertain eagerness; he rambles when he’s nervous in a charming and funny way. Davenport’s Mike is more self-assured, although this is new territory for him as well, and we can see he’s not totally confident about the path he’s taken. But he’s drawn to Will.

Both Jenkins-Copeland and Davenport are fine singers, and with the accompaniment of four musicians, they put Girlfriend’s songs across with conviction and emotion. Erin McCamley, the show’s musical director, adds occasional vocal enhancements, in addition to handling keyboards; other musicians include guitarist Nick Rose, bass player Julia Higgins and drummer Kristin Agee. (Several others will be in and out of the band during Girlfriend’s run.)

Mercer has added further texture to the musical numbers with expressive choreography by Kim Popa, executive director of Pones Inc., a Cincinnati dance company. As Will and Mike sit awkwardly in an imagined car at the drive-in, they begin singing and then moving in abstract ways that reveal the emotions they feel but cannot verbalize.But it’s worth saying that all these well-handled elements — music, acting and dance — are woven together most effectively by Almond’s witty script.

Mike and Will are vulnerable, scared and immensely tentative as they enter this unfamiliar world of romance, especially in the shadow of potential disapproval. Almond has written a story with such genuine sincerity and understanding that it’s a tale anyone — gay or straight — can relate to. A steady undercurrent of knowing chuckles emanated from audience members on opening night as familiar moments hit home with them.

Last summer Know’s production of 100 Days, a Rock opera by Shaun and Abigail Bengson, was a big hit for the Over-the-Rhine theater, telling a story about a couple compressing a long marriage into a few months, necessitated by a terminal illness. Girlfriend does not tug on those tragic heartstrings, but it mines emotions we have all experienced. Summertime has long been the season for romantic onstage musicals, and Know reboots that tradition with a show like Girlfriend. This sweet contemporary love story succeeds because the characters are believable young people caught up in the happy, breathless moments of first love — perfect for a warm summer night, maybe at the drive-in.

GIRLFRIEND, presented by Know Theatre of Cincinnati, continues through Aug. 27.