Regional Reviews: San Diego
Also see Bill's reviews of Noura and Almost Famous
During the summer of 1993 in Alliance, Nebraska, Will (Shaun Tuazon), an openly gay high school graduate, gets a phone call from Mike (Michael Louis Cusimano), a popular jock on whom Will has a crush. Although Mike is in a committed straight relationship with a girlfriend, he invites Will to go with him to the local drive-in movie theatre. Will and Mike are nervous in each other's company, and it soon becomes apparent that they are attracted to each other. As they continue to hang out together during the summer, their connection deepens. Both of them turn out to be fans of Sweet and they sing his songs, including "We're the Same," "Sick of Myself," and the title song, all of which incorporate the message of the show.
Almond's book uses humor to depict Will and Mike's contrasting personalities. Will is an expressive and often confident introvert, and Mike is more low-key and relaxed. The story also touches on topics such as homophobia, familial dysfunction, and choosing a path in life that one may not want. While these topics appear to be standard fare in theater these days, Almond does not handle them in a preachy way and deals with them using grounded discussions. My only issue with the script is that the buildup to the final scene relies on a convenient twist. Despite ending on a satisfying note, there is a major coincidence that occurs and doesn't feel true to life. Outside of that minor flaw, Almond's writing weaves in Sweet's songs in an intelligent manner, and director Stephen Brotebeck stages the show with an empathetic touch.
There's a major contrast in how Brotebeck handles the music and the dialogue. The music is usually treated with upbeat energy, while the dialogue has a mellower vibe. This means that the mood of the evening shifts frequently, and Brotebeck's direction helps keep theatregoers invested in the action onstage. Yi-Chien Lee's scenery depicts the Nebraska of 1993, including Mike and Will's homes and the drive-in, while Curtis Mueller's lighting highlights the warm summer days and romantic evenings. Stephen Jensen's miking enhances the sound, making the performances of the cast and the band sound wonderful.
Tuazon and Cusimano (who plays the guitar in several scenes) are equally matched when it comes to their acting and singing. Both have their share of comedic and dramatic moments, while portraying the feelings that Will and Mike have for each other. The band, led by music director/keyboard Krysten Hafso-Koppman and featuring guitarist Melanie Medina and drummer Nobuko Kemmotsu, play music that is both relaxing and joyful. Hafso-Koppman stands out with "You Don't Love Me," a beautiful and sad vocal solo which is one of the most memorable moments of the show.
Girlfriend opens Diversionary's 34th season with an uplifting night and even people who aren't wild about jukebox musicals will find this to be a unique experience.
Girlfriend runs through October 20, 2019, at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd #101, San Diego CA. Tickets start at $27.00. For tickets and information, visit www.diversionary.org or call 619-220-0097.