Broadway's newest musical features some great performances of very stale material.
First dates can be awkward. Modern technology has done little to alleviate that problem. Now that everyone is Googleable and on Facebook, first-daters (and the NSA) have access to a wealth of information before the first cocktail can even be ordered....and not all of it is flattering. Alan Zachary, Michael Weiner, and Austin Winsberg try to capture the modern-day horrors of being single and ready to mingle in First Date, a new rock musical playing at the Longacre Theatre. For all its hipness and topicality, however, this show feels surprisingly dated (no pun intended).
Aaron (Zachary Levi of Chuck) and Casey (Krysta Rodriguez of Smash) are going on a blind date in a chic New York City restaurant. He's a nice Jewish boy and she's an atheist manic pixie dream girl. As the evening progresses, the audience is treated to the show inside the two daters' heads. A chorus of five portrays multiple characters, springing forth from the surrounding diners to support, or more often, undermine this incipient love story. There's Aaron's grandma Ida (Sara Chase), back from the dead to layer on the guilt. Like Hamlet's father, the specter of his ex-fiancée, Allison (Kate Loprest), haunts him throughout the evening while his best friend, Gabe (Bryce Ryness), shows up to ward her off. None of them are really there, but their words and presence are constantly in the room.
The five actors do a superb job playing up the theatricality of this conceit, pulling instruments out of nowhere, performing the quickest of quick changes (standing ovation for costume designer David C. Woolard), and then disappearing back to their roles as unassuming restaurant patrons as soon as the bump of the transition music hits. The production number, "The Girl for You," features multiple costume changes and overlapping melodies and lyrics, making for quite an early showstopper.
Director Bill Berry runs a tight ship and has successfully created moments on stage that can usually only be achieved on film. Mike Baldassari's muscular lighting design helps to make these dimension shifts crystal clear, while lots of extra props and video projections add to the fun.
Unfortunately, the quality of the production is not enough to make up for a stale book (Winsberg) and score (Zachary and Weiner). The story features not one, but two completely over-the-top and cartoonish gay men: the waiter (Blake Hammond) and Casey's BFF, Reggie (Kristoffer Cusick). Over the course of the evening Reggie makes three "bailout" calls (made-up excuses for Casey to ditch the date, e.g. "Tell him your grandma broke her hip") each ending with some variation on "Later, slut." The waiter sings a ridiculous production number ("I'd Order Love") as a way to keep Casey and Aaron in their seats when the date starts to go awry. At best, such clownish depictions of gay men feel awfully two-thousand and late. At worst, they're patronizing and offensive.
Songs about the expectations of who will pay the check (lyric: "It's all those crazy feminists who made this sh*t so friggin' hard!") and the perils of dating a shiksa (the excellent and entertaining "The Girl for You") also seem passé. It's not so much that these issues don't still exist (they do!), but the creative team handles them in a decidedly trite and predictable manner. Despite the rapping, frequent profanity, and hip lingo, this show is about as edgy as a butter knife.
That leaves a traditional yet unmemorable boy-meets-girl musical entertainment. Levi has a natural charm and instinctive comic timing that keeps the audience laughing throughout this 95-minute affair. Rodriguez plays the cool girl well and has a beautiful voice to boot. The rest of the cast works up a sweat playing this manic show to the hilt.
On the strength of these performances alone you might have a good time and perhaps even a wonderful date night. Just don't expect to walk away with any grand insights about how to navigate the dating scene. If First Date teaches us anything, it's that you're on your own. It's up to you and the crazy voices in your head to find "The One."