I must admit the very title of this new musical caused me concern. I didn’t think there would be much in it with which I could identify. I knew it had a rock score and that didn’t thrill me a lot either. But young people had written it, and I’d heard there was abundant young talent in the cast, so off I went with a hopeful heart.
I’m so very glad I did, for First Date is a charming, unpretentious, often witty, very funny, and even touching musical that is fully described in its short title. Yes, horn rimmed and nerdy Aaron enters a New York pub to meet very pretty, very militant Casey on a blind date arranged by friends who know them both. He and she are wary about this meeting for she’s been through a number of them and she’s lost faith in ever finding “the one” that’s right for her. He has just ended a disastrous relationship with Allison, his ex, a sexy and manipulative she-devil who has pretty much turned him off women altogether.
An ensemble of just four other actors will supply all the characters needed to tell the present and back story of these two unlikely lovers. In their first song “First Impression” Aaron and Casey let us know, in two sung soliloquies, just how unpromisingly the first date has begun.
In the rest of this ninety minute mini-musical, we will come to know Casey better, for she will be occasionally lectured by her sister about the realities of romantic love. Aaron is constantly confronted by his best friend, by his father, even by his friendly therapist. There is also a well adjusted very happy gay waiter who will wish him and Casey well, for he’s offered service to many first daters and he thinks tonight’s couple has the potential to make something good come out of it.
Michael Weiner and Alan Zachary have put together a very light score served better by their lyrics than by their generic tunes, but as performed by this extraordinarily charming cast, the score comes off as rollicking and makes for easy listening. You won’t find any violins, saxophones, clarinets, live pianos or much melody in the First Date band but with a couple of keyboards, guitars, a bass and some drums, the undistinguished melodies married to often refreshing lyrics give the actors enough material to allow them to create for us a genuine entertainment.
Yes, the supporting characters are all one dimensional cartoons, but as they are not really people, but figments of the young couple’s imaginations, they are rib tickling and fun to be around. Austin Winsberg’s book gives ample evidence of his background in sitcom television, and First Date marks his Broadway debut, but he does write with an irreverent pen that brings to mind the young Comden and Green in their early On The Town days. Of course their lyrics were married to the music of Leonard Bernstein, which is what makes their show revivable even though its story is rooted in the early 1940s.
I don’t think we’re going to want to hear the dinky tunes of this one in 60 years, but you never know. Some material ages better than others and theatre goers in 2073 might just find First Date a charming relic. What makes it fun is the wit of its words, and the great gifts of its company of 6, with two comparatively new talents carrying the bulk of the load in the two leading roles.
Krysta Rodriguez made something of an impression in the featured role of Ana Vargas on the TV series “Smash” these past two seasons. In this show however, her trim and pert body and face, her clearly defined Casey who wears armor to protect her from hurt, is interesting and complicated and ultimately winning, a firecracker of a woman who’s willing to take a chance on a man whom she first sizes up as a total loser.
Zachary Levi, who is making his Broadway debut, is the discovery of this young season. He brings to Aaron the appealing combination of decency, charm. agility and the sort of potential that only a woman like Casey could help unearth. Their story, though it is all told in the course of one night, manages to take “boy meets girl” from a familiar sitcom feel to a tale of two originals, two sweet people we can root for.
Time and again the director Bill Berry and his choreographer Josh Rhodes take us away from cliché and into surprising territory. When the lyrics permit (as in “Allison’s Theme #2”) Mr. Levi knows just what to do to hit us with a comic delivery that is so polished it belies his limited stage experience.
Blake Hammond, who plays several roles but is essentially The Waiter in this bar, makes a rich comic feast out of his one number, “I’d Order Love”. Bryce Ryness, Kristoffer Cusick and Kate Loprest complete the quartet who keep reminding us this musical is a romp through the agonies and ecstasies of a long first date in the loopy world of 2013 New York City. It was refreshing, too, to see an audience that for a change was not comprised of the white haired Old Guard, but more the exuberant dating crowd itself . The rest of us had a fine time too, and metaphorically proved once again that we live in One World, and should certainly be able to do so amicably and in harmony.