By: David Sheward
My blind date with the first new musical of the 2013-14 Broadway season did not sound promising: a 90-minute comedy about the pitfalls of romantic fix-ups, written by a TV scribe and a songwriting team whose major credits included Disney animated films and a Folgers commercial. From the press release and reports on an earlier production at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre, I was dreading stale jokes about mismatches, swishy gay best friends, pushy Jewish mothers, and this newfangled web-thing called Google. But I was pleasantly surprised and actually enjoyed most of First Date.
While the show is guilty of trotting out tired comic tropes, a game cast led by an assured Zachary Levi of TV’s Chuck in his Broadway debut, and the always delightful Krysta Rodriguez, who managed to outshine Katharine McPhee on Smash, gives the material a fresh bounce. Bill Berry, producing director of the 5th Avenue Theatre, stages the show with economy and wit, and, apart from a lapse or two, this short summer fling passes agreeably, if not memorably.
The premise is simplicity itself: Nebbishy, conventional Aaron (Levi) is set up by a co-worker with edgy, artistic Casey (Rodriguez). Both have been burned in the dating wars and are wary of this new encounter. They meet in a restaurant-bar, and their waiter (of course he’s gay and has show-business aspirations) and four fellow diners play all the roles in Aaron’s and Casey’s heads. The book, by Austin Winsberg (Gossip Girl), is fairly predictable-awkward initial chit-chat, inevitable conflict, final lip lock-and the songs, by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, have more than a bit of pastiche to them. Almost all of the secondary characters are straight from Stereotype Central. In his mind, Aaron’s grandma rises from the grave like Fruma-Sarah in Fiddler on the Roof and threatens to break her grandson’s "matzo balls" if he marries the gentile Casey. Meanwhile, Casey’s extremely nelly BFF repeatedly and annoyingly calls her cellphone as a bail-out option.
But Levi and Rodriguez are so refreshingly honest in their interplay, we wind up rooting for them to get together despite the hokey world they inhabit. Levi displays a self-deprecating charm, which he wisely underplays, and shows off a decent set of singing and dancing chops. He avoids treacle in a syrupy ballad about Aaron’s dead mother and really goes to town in a funny revenge number sung to his haughty ex. Rodriguez has the harder task of making the brittle and defensive Casey likable. She pulls it off brilliantly, slowly exposing Casey’s vulnerability while peeling off cynical wisecracks. This works especially well in her solo "Safer," an interior monologue on the emotional walls her character builds.
The versatile supporting company goes far to flesh out the comedy-sketch roles. Blake Hammond sparkles as the perky waiter, particularly in "I’d Order Love," a kinda corny but sweet piano-bar tune. Only Sara Chase as Casey’s nagging sister leans too heavily on the kind of sitcom delivery that First Date mostly manages to sidestep.
August 13, 2013
Opened Aug. 8 for an open run. Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm & 7pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $35-137. (800) 432-7250. www.telecharge.com