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In "Girlfriend", Gay Teen Romance in the 1990's Comes to Life with Music

Nebraska, 1993. It’s the heyday of the mixtape – and a tough time and place to be a gay teenager.

Chamber musical Girlfriend has been popping up around the country since its tryout run at Berkeley Rep in 2010. It makes its regional premiere at Know Theatre, playing July 29-Aug. 27 and starring popular local actors and Northern Kentucky University alumni Cary Davenport and Montez O. Jenkins-Copeland.

You may recognize the title from singer/songwriter Matthew Sweet’s 1991 album – which was the inspiration for Todd Almond’s intimate musical about a pair of yearning teens during the summer after senior year, one the football hero heading for college with a ‘girlfriend’ who lives in another town, the other a regular kid who expects to keep living and working in their small hometown.

If Almond’s name is familiar, it may be because, before the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music (CCM) grad headed for New York for a kick-ass performing, composing, and playwriting career, he spent time onstage at Ensemble Theatre, including starring in ETC mega-hits I Am My Own Wife and Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

RCN checks in with Davenport and Jenkins-Copeland for a quick conversation.

RCN: The songs play out in Girlfriend like they do in real life rather than the musical stage – singing along to the radio, for instance, rather than an orchestra swelling and a character bursting into song.

Davenport: Girlfriend is a special show. It's extremely new, which means very few people know about it. Matthew Sweet’s songs have a true rock authenticity.

Jenkins-Copeland: The score represents the alt-rock genre of the early ‘90s. Matthew Sweet should have been so much more of a big deal in that time. The songs range so much in emotion and tone, I think everyone should take the time to listen to his repertoire.

Davenport: The style of the music itself is not so much ground-breaking but nostalgic which gives a purer innocence to the show. Many of the melodies are inspired by countless other songs from the first half of the 20th century. It makes the whole show feel like that favorite mix tape you loved so much as a kid. 

Jenkins-Copeland: The music is enough to have you rocking like you’re at a concert.

Davenport: The characters are teenagers who have not quite grown into their own yet. While there is an intense romantic energy between them, they have difficulty expressing themselves fully to one another.

The music of the show acts as a way for them to slowly grow into the young men they want to be. The lyrics are a bit cryptic at times -- they give more of an emotional and youthful essence to the action of the story rather than literal key points.

Jenkins-Copeland: Sweet does an amazing job of capturing the angst in youth while poetically telling a story that everyone can relate to. Some of his tracks rock out while still portraying the isolation that the characters can feel at times while others show those sweet innocent moments of exploring another person’s comfortability.

Davenport: Girlfriend is also an important piece for Cincy's young LGBT community. As (director) Lindsey (Mercer) and (music director) Erin (McCamley) pointed out at the beginning of rehearsals, it avoids many of the negative situations that gay characters go through in theatre, film and television.

There's no physical violence committed to either of them. No one is murdered. No one contracts a terminal illness or even gets sick, and no one is abandoned by their friends and family.

The show has almost zero interference from the outside world with the incredible magic that's happening between the boys. So, for an hour and a half the audience gets to see just the two of them figure each other out. It's very cool.

Jenkins-Copeland: As my generation says, “It’ll give you all the feels.” I think it’s a nice fresh look on gay love and especially in young men. It is such a fun script and I think anyone who fell in love during their teenage years will relate.

RCN: What have you been up to since graduating from NKU’s theater program?

Jenkins-Copeland: Funny story. After leaving NKU I had convinced myself that I was never going to perform again. So I dove very deeply into the service industry, tending bar to be exact.

I loved every second (of the job) but the arts kept calling me back. I began teaching hip hop and contemporary dance classes again. Which led to being in a couple shows; At the Carnegie,  Crossroads Church and Stone on a Walk Theatre.

By this point last year I was back at it full-time. I left last summer to perform on a cruise line as a singer/dancer through the Caribbean and Mexico and returned with a greater passion than ever to create original and meaningful work.

I’m currently conceptualizing a Hip-Hop ballet of Romeo and Juliet which I hope to present in Cincinnati by fall before going out on another ship.

Davenport: After graduating from NKU in 2009 and taking a break from theatre for a year, I worked as a resident ensemble member with Cincinnati Shakespeare Company from 2010 to 2012. I moved to Chicago and lived there from 2012 to 2016 working at a retail store, doing a little bit of theatre and starting a folk rock band. 

Girlfriend is the first show I've done since I got back in June. I'll be in The Diary of Anne Frank at Cincinnati Shakespeare immediately after Girlfriend. I'm working on getting other projects lined up for the future as well. I'd like to maybe even start another band just for fun.

Girlfriend, through Aug. 27. Know Theatre of Cincinnati. 1120 Jackson St., Over-the-Rhine. 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Sunday, July 31 performance is at 8 p.m.  Tickets $25, rush seats $15 10 minutes before curtain, when available. Opening night (July 29) $30, includes a season kick-off party with food, cocktails, and a silent auction. All proceeds support the mission and programs of Know's 19th season. 513-300-5669 and knowtheatre.com

There’s more:

Free performances on Wednesdays, as part of Know’s Welcome Experiment initiative. Advance reservations to Welcome Experiment performances are $5; Walk-up tickets are available free the day of the show.

Free Community Conversations about what it’s like to grow up gay in America, pre-performance panel discussions led by The River City News and Awesome City Magazine Publisher Michael Monks on Aug. 4 and Aug. 11. In partnership with GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network.

Written by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts
Photo provided