Before the show began in ACT’s Falls Theatre, I was looking over set designer Matthew Smucker’s massive backdrop, an abstract (I thought) photo of New York that ran from the ceiling down to the floor, and out to the edge of the stage. But then Alex Berry’s lights came up, shadows and depth emerged, and I realized the photo’s viewpoint was looking up at the sky from a New York sidewalk. Suddenly the scene had life. (Then tables popped up from the floor like toadstools. Go, Smucker!)
First Date, a 5th Avenue Theatre-ACT co-production (at ACT through May 20; tickets), never really achieves that transformation. It’s an infant musical, so there’s plenty of time for tweaks, but at this moment in time, it plays like one of those sketchy TV sitcoms that are based on a funnier, more interesting show on another channel. They only get good when they discover a way to be original.
There is just no getting around the issue that the book by Austin “Gossip Girl” Winsberg and music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner aim for the middle-brow, as a friend of mine likes to say, and hit it squarely.
Aaron (Eric Ankrim) works in theory on Wall Street, making his caboodle before packing his kit off to a happy, married family life. He’s a nebbishy Jewish guy who’s always putting his foot in his mouth. Very sweet though, heart of gold, your mom would plotz. He’s very nervous about being on a blind date; Ankrim plays him like Sheldon Cooper‘s cousin.
His date is “bad girl” Casey (Kelly Karbacz). She’s artsy and self-defeating. Already you’re a little tense, aren’t you? I mean, an uptight Jewish guy on a date with a freewheeling shiksa — this ground has been traveled like a 30-lane Texas interstate, so the show’s creators have set before themselves the significant task of keeping this fresh, and the opening number is barely over.
All is not lost; Ankrim and Karbacz manage to bring you into the minefield of the diminished-expectation first date, when both sides feel a bit let down, and the conversation can be tinged with “don’t waste my time.”
Benjamin Harris adds a hip dynamism with his “bailout”-phone-call numbers (if getting a little Andy-Dicky by the end — I’m surprised by director Bill Berry allowing the cast-wide the tendency to go big in such a small house), and Richard Gray sells his Durante-flavored “I’d Order Love” (the single!) so well, you’re hungry for an encore.
On the downside: Vicki Noon, Brandon O’Neill, and Billie Wildrick are trapped in voices-in-their-heads cutaway numbers that don’t really allow for characters to emerge, or even subtext. They’re all capable performers, but a number like “That’s Why You Love Me” goes over so much better because Harris and O’Neill get to be people, at last, not mental projections.
For some reason, the show creators never seem to have asked themselves — despite frequent references to the word “baggage” — just how engaging it is to hear about someone’s baggage. There’s a reason we call it “baggage” instead of “marvelous and strange histories!” after all.
I have also to question “The World Wide Web is Forever.” Who is this song for? Someone waking up from a coma? Do we really need this (Facebook! Google! Twitter!) explained to us? Yes, it is difficult to avoid the premature glut of information, but the song doesn’t dramatize that, and neither does the show. (After Aaron admits he Googled her, he and Casey mime getting into a Google war, but it’s not real, it’s for joke lines.) It is hard not to feel that this particular song was dated before anyone bothered to write it down.
Musically…another reviewer has already used the word “generic,” and I don’t want to pile on. But it is also not apt in at least one key instance: I can’t for the life of me understand why Casey’s “Build Another Wall” is not the ballad (or screamer) it longs to be, but jazzily uptempo. Crazy.
It’s ironic (no, really, it is) that it’s partly because First Date is so of its time that it drags itself down with its own annotations. After all, who wants to see the director’s cut of a first date? (But: it is genuinely funny and real when Aaron wants to go to the highlights tape.) The show is constantly cutting away to have someone comment, and this is not dramatic, but anti-dramatic. That’s troublesome when all you’ve got to hang the show on is, in fact, a first date. There needs to be more audacity there, than this.