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Girlfriend

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While it won’t cramp the style of those Minions or radically affect the box office for Ant Man, my choice for the entertainment treat of the summer is Todd Almond and Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend now playing at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

Almond’s smart and deceptively simple chamber musical uses the music from Sweet’s 1991 album of the same title to musicalize the summer of 1993 in a small Nebraska town.This summer will change the lives of two disparate young men, Will (Ryder Bach) and Mike (Curt Hansen).

Will is a teenage pariah whose nonconformity attracts derision from most of his peers.  While probably not declaring himself out of the closet, Will is the kind of young man who can’t, or won’t, hide his nature. When first glimpsed, he is gleefully tossing his books, notes, and backpack into the trash can, overjoyed that the nightmare of high school is finally over.

Mike is, on the surface, Will’s polar opposite. Popular, from a prominent family and a baseball star, Mike has been hiding his sensitive, creative side. And he’s coming to terms with his own sexual identity. Desperate to connect, he initiates a tentative friendship with a surprised and somewhat wary Will. Mike’s gift to Will of a mix tape moves quickly to an unexpected serenade over the telephone.

If the idea of the Prom King courting the resident high school geek sounds like the wishful thinking of a thousand romance novels, Almond’s script embraces the cliché and freshens it with a healthy dose of reality. Inexperience and fear make for an excruciatingly slow courtship, and this is where Almond shines. His hesitant, pause-filled dialog tells us all we need to know about Mike’s taciturn nature and Will’s nerves. Gay teens in 1993 had few role models. We laugh in recognition as they haltingly fumble toward intimacy and, when they finally kiss, the entire audience exhales in relief.

Under Les Waters’ perceptive and sensitive direction, each scene crackles with vitality. He skillfully guides the actors into performances that respect the eloquence of silence as well as the lines. Watch as he uncovers every bit of comedy and longing in those silences during the first of several “dates” the boys endure at the drive-in. Or the devastating moment in which the boys, innocently sitting on the grass, are called “faggots” by someone in a passing car. In the silence that follows, we feel Will’s pain and embarrassment. We also see a new reality opening up for Mike, who has never been on the receiving end of such abuse.

Ryder Bach’s Will is gawky and endearing, while Curt Hansen is the essence of jock charisma. They sing the score well, and they have terrific chemistry. But what is most impressive is the effortless give and take they bring to every scene, lending each moment the impression of being newly minted.

David Zinn’s carefully curated scenic design and costumes offer just enough to create a time capsule to the early 90’s, while Julie Wolf and her vibrant female band make a terrific sound in their upstage rumpus room.

I saw the original production at Berkeley Rep in 2010 and liked it then. But this new version feels leaner and more concentrated. The ending still feels a little too pat: the only moment where convention is allowed to trump reality. But that’s a niggling complaint when every other moment shines with theatrical life.

Kirk Douglas Theatre    July 19 – August 9, 2015     www.centerthetregroup.org

 

Spotlight

Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”

ABOUT ELLEN RICHARD

Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.