It’s not surprising to read in the Playbill for Broadway’s First Date that book writer Austin Winsberg has extensive television credits, including Gossip Girl and Jake in Progress. This romantic musical comedy — first seen in a co-production by Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre and A Contemporary Theater — has a definite sitcom-like quality. But it also displays a genuine wit and musical flair that marks a refreshing change from the onslaught of overblown musicals permeating Broadway these days. Starring Zachary Levi of TV’s Chuck in his Broadway debut and Krysta Rodriguez (The Addams Family, Smash), this modest, unassuming tuner is a definite crowd-pleaser, although it may find itself struggling for tourist dollars when the bigger shows arrive in the fall.
Set entirely in a stylish Manhattan bistro, it depicts the awkward — is there any other kind? — first date for the tightly wound Aaron (Levi) and the bohemian Casey (Rodriguez), a “serial dater” who’s clearly more experienced with this sort of thing. The occasion marks Aaron’s tentative reentry into the world of romance since being ditched at the altar by his fiancé, and his nervousness is clearly on display.
Shepherded to their seats by a solicitous waiter, the couple initially engages in the usual small talk, until the first bomb drops. Casey casually reveals that she’s not Jewish, prompting a hilarious if stereotype-filled musical number, “The Girl for You,” in which the other patrons transform themselves into characters including aghast Hasids, Aaron’s dead grandmother and Aaron and Casey’s future son.
Subsequent songs in Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner’s peppy score comment on the couple’s interactions, including the folksy, Simon and Garfunkel-style “The Awkward Pause”; the oft-reprised “Bailout Song,” a series of frantic messages from Casey’s gay friend offering her an alibi to escape from her date; “The World Wide Web is Forever,” about the perils of dating when your personal information is readily available online; and “The Check,” depicting the angst over who should pay the bill at the end of the evening.
As the above list indicates, it’s all fairly familiar stuff, but under the assured direction of Bill Berry it’s rendered with a comic verve that produces a constant stream of laughs. Levi, here bespectacled and bearded and displaying the same charmingly geeky quality that he did on Chuck, is assured in his singing and perfect deadpan timing. Rodriguez is equally fine, her natural charm and sex appeal working wonders to offset her character’s occasional off-putting qualities.
Lending sterling support is the five-person ensemble — Bryce Ryness, Kristoffer Cusick, Blake Hammond, Sara Chase and Kate Loprest — who assume a wide variety of peripheral characters, including Aaron’s boorish best friend who offers macho-style dating advice (“Salads are for pussies,” he cries upon hearing Aaron’s desire to order a chopped salad); Casey’s nagging sister who advises her not to let Aaron get away despite his not being one of the “bad boys” she usually favors; Aaron’s clinging ex, who refuses to leave his thoughts; and a therapist whose counsel largely consists of “Blah, blah, blah.”
David Gallo’s inventive scenic and media design, including amusing visual representations of Casey’s ticking biological clock and an omniscient Google, add to the fun.
Not wearing out its welcome at a brisk 95 minutes, First Date has the sort of small-scale charms that make it something of an anomaly on Broadway these days, and would probably be far more at home in an intimate off-Broadway venue. But at the very least, it signals bigger things to come for its talented creatives and leading players.
Venue: Longacre Theatre, New York City
Cast: Zachary Levi, Krysta Rodriguez, Bryce Ryness, Kristoffer Cusick, Blake Hammond, Sara Chase, Kate Loprest
Book: Austin Winsberg
Music and lyrics: Alan Zachary, Michael Weiner
Director: Bill Berry
Musical staging: Josh Rhodes
Scenic and media designer: David Gallo
Costume designer: David C. Woolard
Lighting designer: Mike Baldassari
Sound designer: Kai Harada
Presented by Junkyard Dog Productions, Stern Productions, Altar Identity Studios, Alex and Katya Lukianov, Susan and Jim Blair and Linda and Bill Potter in association with Yasuhiro Kawana, Vijay and Sita Vashee, Kevin and Lynn Foley, Jeff and Julie Goldstein, Edward and Mimi Kirsch, Frank and Denise Phillips, Steven Reynolds and Paula Rosput Reynolds, Land Line Productions, Alhadeff Family Productions/Sheri and Les Biller, Pat Halloran/Laura Little Theatrical Productions, Tony Meola/Remmel T. Dickinson and John Yonover, ShadowCatcher Entertainment/Tom and Connie Walsh