Director Barry Edelstein charmed his Old Globe audiences this summer with an electric Romeo and Juliet production brimming with pop music from the disco era. So perhaps it is no surprise that Diversionary Theatre’s just opened Romeo and Romeo musical, Todd Almond’s 2010 Girlfriend, should pulse with the music of 1990s pop icon Matthew Sweet with equal success.
For Shakespeare’s young lovers, a long-standing feud between their respective noble Veronese families impedes their romance at every turn. For Mike and Will, Almond’s pair of just-graduated high school seniors trapped in a small rural Nebraska town, the prevailing local homophobia is their nemesis.
In Diversionary’s Girlfriend, Michael Louis Cusimano gives Mike, the athlete and honor student, just the right amount of take-charge self-confidence as he begins to become aware of and to act on his attraction to Will. Shaun Tuazon works overtime to make the audience care for Will, the effervescent but nerdy loner who is bullied as the high school’s only out gay student.
Mike launches their affair by giving Will a mixtape of Sweet’s music, which just happens to include “Girlfriend,” the title of Sweet’s biggest hit song of the 1990s. This sets up the musical component of Girlfriend, and Tuazon and Cusimano make a smashing musical duo confidently singing 10 of Sweet’s songs as the musical and their relationship progresses.
The duo is backed by a stellar house band, sleekly led by Kyrsten Hafso-Koppman on keyboard, and featuring knockout lead guitar Melanie Medina. Christian Reeves supplies bass and Noboko Kemmotsu drums. The band plays in a cage placed at stage right which is aptly illuminated during each song.
In truth, given Almond’s diaphanous plot, the songs made the evening. Sweet’s style is usually described as alternative rock—although I was amused by the source that called it “adult alternative pop/rock.” Whether pumped-up or laid-back, each ballad soared on Tuazon’s and Cusimano’s ample vocal and interpretive prowess, with occasional deft vocal back-up by Hafso-Koppman. Cusimano also offered well-tailored acoustic guitar on a few of the songs.
Like most of Diversionary’s directors, Stephen Brotebeck found a satisfying array of placements for the two actors on the company’s small triangular stage, and Curtis Mueller’s creative lighting added helpful definition. Yi-Chien Lee’s modest set suggested each character’s bedroom nestled into opposite corners of the stage, and the carefully made bed in Mike’s bedroom gave the audience assurance from the outset the the two would eventually spend a night together.
Seated on the two moveable cubes that serve as the front seats of Mike’s car, the duo spends much of their summer watching the same sci-fi adventure film at the local outdoor movie establishment. The son of the town physician, of course Mike has his own vehicle, and much of the guys’ time together is spent just driving around or going to the outdoor movies. Not a lot to do in rural Nebraska!
Tuazon proved particularly skillful at expressing the gamut of emotional convolutions this roller coaster summer relationship sends him on. This is particularly welcome, since Almond has seriously underwritten his role.
We know that Mike is an ace student, plays on the baseball team, and will soon be off to the university in Lincoln to start his pre-med coursework there. But Almond gives us no clues about Will–whether he is a good or an indifferent student, of if he has any interests or hobbies, or even why he has not given a single thought of what he intends to do after graduating. Almond tells us more about Will’s mother, who is not an onstage character: she is divorced and smokes obsessively. Could not Will at least have worked on the yearbook committee or have participated in the school choir, that longstanding bastion of refuge for social outcasts?
Brooke Nicole Kesler supplied apt, casual period attire for the two teenagers. Will’s brightly hued polyester shirt with bold vertical stripes will surely stay in my memory.
Presented by San Diego’s Diversionary Theatre, Todd Almond’s and Matthew Sweet’s “Girlfriend” runs through October 13, 2019, at the company’s theater located at 4545 Park Blvd. Performances run Thursdays at 7:00 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. The opening night September 21 performance was seen for this review.