Scott McGowan and Julian Galipeau in the Fighting Chance Productions presentation of Girlfriend.
Scott McGowan and Julian Galipeau in the Fighting Chance Productions presentation of Girlfriend.

Are you old enough to remember the mixtape? An equivalent to today’s Spotify playlist, initially gaining traction in the 1980s, it was a compilation of favourite music usually recorded on a cassette tape. More often than not, it was given away as a sign of affection.

In Todd Almond’s Girlfriend, the mixtape becomes a catalyst for a touching story of self-discovery through the music of Mathew Sweet’s album of the same name.

Set in 1990-something in a small Nebraska town, Girlfriend tells the story of Will, who is crushing on high-school jock Mike. Having just graduated from high school, the two develop an initially uneasy relationship, bonding over a mixtape of Sweet’s music Mike has given Will. As the two young men begin to spend more time together, hilariously watching the same movie at the local drive-in over and over again, a burgeoning romance develops between them.

At first glance, it is a little challenging to imagine Sweet’s album as the basis for a same-sex love story. But while Sweet wrote the music following his divorce in 1990, it easily transcends its heterosexual underpinnings to become a beautiful soundtrack to the story of these two young men.

What makes Girlfriend sing, though, is in Almond’s decision to use the songs as a catalyst rather than trying to force them into his story’s narrative. While still a jukebox musical of sorts, the music feels much more naturally integrated.

Another big revelation comes from Almond’s decision to focus away from the cliched “bury your gays” trope so often found in LGBTQ stories. It’s not that homophobia doesn’t find its way into Girlfriend, but it is secondary to Will and Mike discovering who they are.

With much of the success of a musical like Girlfriend resting squarely on the shoulders of its two actors, director Chris Lam found the perfect match in Julian Galipeau and Scott McGowan.

Both recent graduates of Studio 58, there is an honesty and required hesitancy to their performances. Under Lam’s direction, the two aren’t afraid of silence, and the occasional looks of fear, mixed with desire, are both heartbreaking and very, very real.

On the vocal front, McGowan may be the stronger of the two, but Galipeau’s portrayal of the awkward Will is a perfect match to his musical abilities. But when the two come together, there is a joy to their singing that reverberates through the room.

There is an organic nature to Melissa Sciarretta’s choreography that, while uncomplicated, is the perfect choice for these two characters.

Helping the two men on stage is a rock quartet under the musical direction of Monica Sumulong Dumas. At times providing some beautiful harmonies in addition to playing instruments, the only letdown comes late in the show with the penultimate “You Don’t Love Me.” Sung by members of the band to underscore a pivotal moment late in the show, it was a little rough.

Another stumbling block comes in director Lam’s decision to stage the musical in an alley set-up. With the audience seated on two sides, it often forces the actors to perform with their backs to us. While it is easy to see how a more traditional proscenium staging could become static and distancing, perhaps the answer here was to present it in the round instead.

But even while the Fighting Chance Productions presentation of Girlfriend might be a little rough around the edges, it ultimately delivers thanks to the performances from Galipeau and McGowan. It is also helped immensely by Almond’s sensitive and uplifting love story.

With vivid memories of receiving my first mixtape and growing up gay in a small town, that I reached for the tissues on numerous occasions still caught me off guard. They weren’t tears of sadness. They were tears of recognition in the wonders of first love and discovering who you are. They were tears of the power of music.

Girlfriend is one mixtape I am glad to have been able to see and hear. I think you will too.

Girlfriend with a book by Todd Almond. Music and lyrics by Matthew Sweet. Directed by Chris Lam. A Fighting Chance Productions presentation. On stage at The Nest (1398 Cartwright St, Granville Island, Vancouver) until December 21. Visit fightingchanceproductions.ca for tickets and information.