By Phil Kinen, guest reviewer
Spinning Tree’s smashing Kansas City premier production of “Girlfriend” offers a terrific examination of a simple love story mired in confusion, self-consciousness, and misunderstanding.
Why must human beings can take something simple and make it so complicated? Take for instance, love. The musical generates from the music of alternative rock star, Matthew Sweet and his1991 commercially and critically successful rock album of the same name,
High praise also goes to book writer, Todd Almond. Sweet wrote the songs for his album Girlfriend after a depressing divorce. But the musical never touches depression or divorce. Instead Almond incorporates precision elegance to wrap these songs around a stirring story of love, awakening, excitement, and coming out; and just what a clumsy, awkward, sweet muddle we can make of it.
It is summer of 1993. Senior year of high school ends, and the scary anticipation of college, or whatever else, looms. It’s also a time for blossoming love wherein the audience finds the college-bound jock Mike and the directionless Will being drawn towards each other. Slowly they develop a deep bond to each other in of all places, in Alliance, Nebraska.
The production benefits from Michael Grayman-Parkhurst’s skillful direction. The story plays so beautifully, so streamline and seamless, one would hardly think it was directed at all. The show moves fast and avoids getting bogged down by decelerating moments of confusion or misunderstandings between the two boys.
Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend album is considered a remarkable artistic breakthrough and tackling his songs would be an overwhelming feat. Thankfully, Music Director Pamela Baskin-Watson and her all-girl “Girlfriend” band deliver that power pop accuracy right down to the jangling guitar and engaging melodies filled with enveloping emotion. The “Girlfriend” band consists of Caitlyn Henson on drums, Kelly Crane on bass and Baskin-Watson on keyboard and sings backup. Rounding out the band Darcie Hingula rocks out with her guitar and vocals.
Newcomers Dakotta Hagar and Jeremy Ragland make their Spinning Tree debut in the roles of Will and Mike. Both gentlemen remain on strong equal footing with each other throughout their performances. They play their characters as “nice, funny, and cool” young men with facial expressions that go beyond words. Their chemistry creates radiating energy that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats while waiting for events to unfold. Their dynamics create a deep connection between themselves. That connection also takes the audience on a ride through the old and familiar emotions they all felt at that age.
Projections by Conor Tierney skillfully indicate place, character, and mood. Posters of rock bands, pop stars, and Broadway show posters befitting of each boy are projected on their bedroom walls. One nice touch is the appearance of the “Girlfriend” album with starlet Tuesday Weld on the cover appearing in both boy’s bedrooms. Others on the production team include Jeff Eubank for sound design, Eric Palmquist for properties design, and Rachel Carney for lighting design. Lydia Krause serves as the production stage manager.
A very special treat incorporates American Sign Language Shadow Interpreters. Shadow interpreting, in which interpreters “shadows” the actors, allows deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons the ability to take in both the sign language and the action simultaneously.
Interpreters Juliana Ladd and Lisa Lehnen captivate as they sign dialogue, mirror movement and gestures, interact on their own level and even encourage the actors as the show progresses. Cheers to spinning tree producers Michael and Andrew Grayman-Parkhurst for incorporating this fascinating practice.
Performance schedule for this extraordinary production at the Johnson County Arts and Heritage Center (8788 Metcalf, Overland Park, KS) continue to play Wednesday through Saturday, January 29 – February 1 and February 5 – 8 at 7:30 pm. Sunday matinee performances on February 2 and 9 are at 2:00 pm. The ASL Shadow Interpreters perform January 29 – February 2. Tickets are now on sale through Central Ticket Office by calling 816-235-6222 or by visiting Spinning Tree Theatre’s website. www.spinningtreetheatre.com.
Tags: “Girlfriends” review, Spinning Tree Theatre, Kansas City Theatre, Kansas City Performing Arts, Kansas City Arts & Entertainment