‘Girlfriend’ review: musical is a winning mix at PrideArts

Can teenagers today understand what it once meant to make someone a mixtape? The careful selection and sequencing of tracks, maximizing the available space on each side of the cassette, fervently hoping you could convey the right tone and coded message through other people’s music. For those who came of age in the ’80s and ’90s, the act of putting together a mixtape was a labor of love, and sometimes a confession of it.

“Girlfriend,” playwright Todd Almond’s sweet and inventive rock musical now on stage at PrideArts, hinges on the gifting of a mixtape; it’s also, in itself, a narratively enhanced example of the form.

‘Girlfriend’

Almond’s chosen tracks all come from the same artist: Matthew Sweet, the power-pop troubadour who found success on the modern rock charts in the early 1990s. Almond pulls mostly from Sweet’s 1991 breakthrough album, also titled “Girlfriend,” which the singer famously wrote in the midst of a divorce from his first wife.

With titles like “I’ve Been Waiting,” “Reaching Out,” and “I Wanted to Tell You,” Sweet’s songs vibrate with the kind of longing and vulnerability that make them well-suited for communicating with a crush or for musical theater. And three decades ago, they spoke to Almond, then a closeted gay teenager in small-town Alliance, Nebraska, who heard something in the music and lyrics of fellow Nebraskan Sweet that felt like a lifeline.

“Girlfriend,” the musical, is not coincidentally set in Alliance, Nebraska, in 1993. It centers on 18-year-olds Will (Joe Lewis) and Mike (Peter Stielstra), who strike up an unexpected friendship in the summer following their high school graduation.

Will has accepted that he’s gay, and tells himself he’s accepted the ostracism that comes with it. He couldn’t be more thrilled to be done with the social hell of high school, as he tells us in one of his frequent asides to the audience; it may be the middle of June, but he declares it “New Year’s Day.” Yet in his focus on reaching the school finish line, Will doesn’t seem to have given much thought to his plans for the new year.

Mike, whose inner thoughts we do not get to hear, is more of a puzzle — for us and for Will. Mike’s in with the popular crowd, a star baseball player headed to college in the fall on a full-ride scholarship. But in the waning weeks of senior year, Mike approached Will with a cassette tape full of songs he thought the latter boy might like.

Mike professes to have a girlfriend — one who “doesn’t go to our school” and “lives far away.” While it isn’t made explicit, this unseen girlfriend is likely a defensive fiction. Meanwhile, their shared taste in music provides an excuse for Mike to keep asking Will to hang out, and a safe-ish way to test new waters: When they sing along in Mike’s car to the title track’s refrain of “I’d sure love to call you my girlfriend,” how much extra meaning is under the surface?

The pairing of Out Nerd and Closeted Jock is almost its own queer coming-of-age trope at this point, powering stories from Jonathan Harvey’s 1993 play “Beautiful Thing” to this year’s Netflix hit “Heartstopper.”

The casting of Lewis and Stielstra in director Jay Espa?o’s production subtly subverts expectations, though. Rather than a sensitive hunk who finds something unexpectedly awakened in him, Stielstra’s Mike is just as neurotic as Lewis’ Will. (In his Chicago debut, Stielstra has an ethereal magnetism and a killer falsetto that mark him as one to watch.)

Mike doesn’t have to have his eyes opened to the closed-mindedness of his friends; instead he’s practically pleading for Will to hear the signals he’s sending out, on tape and in real life, and pull him to the safety, and the danger, of being himself. It’s a compelling twist on the formula, and the two actors have the chemistry — and the honey-sweet harmonies — to pull it off.

Espa?o’s production has some practical drawbacks. Sight lines are a particular problem, which seems like something that should be avoidable at a storefront scale, and he and scenic designer Isabella Noe could work to make scene transitions smoother. And the onstage band, led by music director Robert Ollis, doesn’t quite exude rock-star vibes.

But looking at the track list as a whole — quirky conceit, endearing characters, captivating actors and clever soundtrack — “Girlfriend” is a winning mix.

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