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Sweet power pop permeates ‘Girlfriend’

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“Girlfriend,” the world-premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, represents an extraordinary feat in modern theater: This musical based on 1990s pop rocker Matthew Sweet’s cult-classic album of the same name is wholeheartedly sweet.

With a precise, funny and smart book by Todd Almond, a big fan of the recording, this story of awkward young love between two guys who just graduated high school in Nebraska works markedly better than Berkeley Rep’s other recent high-profile rock-music project, Green Day’s “American Idiot.”

Both have great music, but only “Girlfriend” oozes heart and soul.

The story, set in 1993, is simple.

Deliciously effeminate and quirkily articulate Will (Ryder Bach, wearing a pastel T-shirt adorned with drawings of Dino the dinosaur), who has been admiring appealing, conflicted jock Mike (Jason Hite),  begins to realize his dreams when Mike makes him a mix tape.

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The show opens with a song on the tape they both like, “I’ve Been Waiting,” possibly the most infectious of the album’s catchy tunes.

Mike asks Will to the drive-in, on more than one occasion.

They exchange halted conversations, actually watch the same film over and over, and skirt around the fact that they like each other, even though Mike has a girlfriend. And they sing, communicating their feelings through song.

Bach and Hite’s exceptional harmonies add oomph, making the tunes even richer than the recorded versions, while the crucial music is provided by the kick-butt, all-female band — Julie Wolf on keyboards, Shelley Doty on guitar, Jean DuSabion on bass and ieela Grant on drums.

At the back of the stage, the musicians play in front of a paneled wall that looks like a garage or basement. Most of the action is set on a couch, which doubles as the car at the drive-in. The boys’ bedrooms are simply suggested, with sleeping bag and dresser, in David Zinn’s no-nonsense set design. Japhy Weideman’s dynamic light design adds dimension.

Director Les Waters and choreographer-storyteller Joe Goode  deftly focus both on touching details and the universal experience of young love, making “Girlfriend” a rare treat — authentic, intimate and romantic, and, as the “I’ve Been Waiting” lyric goes, “perfect in so many ways.”

lkatz@sfexaminer.com

Theater Review

Girlfriend

Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Where: Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays; 7 p.m. Wednesdays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes May 9

Tickets: $33 to $71

Contact: (510) 647-2929, www.berkeleyrep.org

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