The first new musical of the season, First Date, opened last night at the Longacre Theatre, and it pleases me to say that this lightweight affair is what it sets out to be: a harmless, charming confection as satisfying as lemonade on a hot summer day - sweet with just a little bite to it. Is it great, art form-changing theatre? No. But it is a fun, good-hearted romp, perfect for anyone who likes their shows brief, relatable and snobbery free.
As a gay guy, I had a slight fear that this relationship comedy might be a little difficult for me to relate to. Good news on that front: writers Austin Winsberg, Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner have created a scenario and a variety of inter-personal relationships that are almost completely universal. One needn't be "straight" (or Jewish or a hipster) to relate to either Aaron or Casey, the pair on their first date. They have the same hang-ups, self-doubts, and survival instincts that all of us do. Turns out we all have nagging, but well-meaning relatives who ask, "why are you still alone?" We all have friends that are our back up plan - be it the "bailout caller" or the cheering section for the prospective relationship at hand. And we all have our individual histories, be they religious or a series of exes.
Oddly enough, for a trio with their collective fingers on the pulse of "Everyrelationship," the one place they truly fail is in the reliance of a gay stereotype so overblown so as to be offensive, embarrassing and tedious. In this day and age, do even the "straightest" 20/30-somethings (that are clearly the audience for this show) still think a swishy, high-pitched screaming priss (think Mario Cantone to the 20th power) is a viable representation of "the gay best friend"? I fault the director, Bill Berry, for wanting this to be part of an otherwise nice evening; the writers for not trying harder, not even realizing that Casey would never tolerate such foolishness in a friend, and for bringing it out not once, but THREE times; and even the actor (Kristoffer Cusick) for not overcoming it all to tell the character's story better. (Call 1, the traditional bailout; call 2, fear that something is wrong, because his friend never lets the first call go unanswered; and call 3, abject panic that his friend is really in trouble.)
|Bryce Ryness, Kate Loprest,
Kristoffer Cusick and Sara Chase
In fairness to Mr. Cusick, though, the other roles he plays are just fine - very funny, well sung, and specifically played. All of the other supporting cast members play multiple roles, and they all do fine with the material they are given. Kate Loprest gets great mileage out of her primary role, the sexy but flawed ex-girlfriend. Curvy and pouty, she is pretty hot, and what comes out of her mouth provides many a clever twist and gives the audience many a laugh. Equally funny is Sara Chase who treads familiar ground - the already married know-it-all nagging sister - in an absolutely hilarious way. (Is she a stand-up comic? She should be!) And the always enjoyable Bryce Ryness is a riot as "the bad boy all the good girls want," and is a real hoot as the Aaron's best friend and mental wing man. Rounding out the ensemble is Blake Hammond, who handles the role of waiter/relationship go-between with a refreshing flair, making even the most cliched moments seem fresh and up-to-date. He even gets to do the most traditional Broadway number, "I'd Order Love," with a knowing wink and load of panache.
|Kristoffer Cusick, Krysta Rodriguez and Bryce Ryness
This show, however, would be absolutely pointless and deadly boring without a commanding presence and chemistry by the bus load from its two leads. Fear not, the central couple has charm, chemistry and charisma to spare, even when they are at odds with each other. Yes, Zachary Levi and Krysta Rodriguez are smashing together, with just enough conflict lingering to make the ending an almost-not-sure-thing. What is also nice about both performances is that together, they play off each other with both the ease of two people who work well together, and a believable awkwardness as if all of this were really happening for the first time. Even better, separately, they are both pretty terrific, too. Levi is so charming, it makes you ache that you can't take him home with you. Deft at both verbal and physical comedy, he also sings with a gusto that is infectious, and with a tone that is always pleasant to the ear. His big solo, "In Love With You," is an honest-to-goodness showstopper - a real tour de force moment that requires broad comedy - and his other big number, " The Things I Never Said," displays a heartbreaking sincerity. (I am already looking forward to what he does next on Broadway.) Ms. Rodriguez is ideally cast as the modern New York girl, all sass and tough-as-nails on the outside of a woman with complexity and just enough insecurity to make her approachable. The truth is she has the harder hill to climb, making a largely dislikeable character interesting enough to pay attention to until her softer side comes out. She also has the best, funniest line of the show; actually, one of the best lines in years. She has but one solo, "Safer," which she does quite well. One wishes that both leads had more to sing and dance. And there in lies the show's biggest problem.
|Zachary Levi and Krysta Rodriguez
|Krysta Rodriguez and Zachary Levi
I rarely say this, but this is one show that could benefit from being just a tad longer, with more for the leads to do, including showing us more layers to like about Casey - why wait so long to let us in on her vulnerability? And with Aaron, maybe a little more than the tired "Jewish legacy" of male insecurities - why wait so long to let the audience know he has a spine? Maybe letting us see these contrasting traits sooner would heighten the aspects of their characters we get to see so much of already. It would work with the theatrical conceit of breaking reality with "in their heads moments." Also, there are a couple of moments that are really campy fun - the Jewish grandmother resurrected to warn Aaron of impending shiksa doom, and the cautionary tale of life told by the couple's grown child. The problem with them is that the latter isn't campy enough, and the former seems sillier than it really is. A third campy scene (not involving the gay guy) might balance the tone and offer high comedy right before the real drama comes down. Balance of tone, especially with two such competing styles, would serve this project well.
Finally, I have to commend the designers, particularly set/media and lighting designers David Gallo and Mike Baldassari, for creating the perfect generic New York bar/grill setting. Gallo's projections add a spice to several numbers, and his unit set offers many a visual surprise. Baldassari's lighting is moody in the "reality" scenes and fantastically theatrical during the many breaks from real time. I especially enjoyed the rock concert style light bridges during a couple of the bigger numbers, and the ever-present wall of lit bar glasses.
Sure, First Date is a slight thing - not even a glimpse of Sondheim, Kander or Ebb in sight. Nothing profound, but entirely relatable and entertaining from start to finish. And it is nice to hear modern characters talk and sing using words that their characters would actually utter. If that's banal, then so be it. It fits. And the show flies by - Mr. Berry may not have a firm grasp on tone switching and is clueless when it comes to gay characters, but he knows how to keep a show going at a breakneck pace, with just enough slowing down to let the serious side of the situation peek through. Josh Rhode's vigorous choreography may not rival Fosse or Stroman, but it is witty, fits each moment perfectly, and is endlessly creative in using what is otherwise a static setting.
First Date probably won't win many awards, but it sure is a pleasant enough way to start the season.
(Photos by Joan Marcus)