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Chicago by John Olson

First Date
Royal George Theater


Charlie Lubeck and Dana Parker
What could be more universal than a first date? We've all had them and that mixture of dread, hope and awkwardness is a strange brew people must endure in order to get to a second date. This musical, which ran for four months on Broadway last season, has been made available to Chicago audiences, courtesy of a new commercial production company, First Date LLC. The thing is, even with all the potential pitfalls of a bad first date—dressing inappropriately, not knowing who should pay, making bad jokes, bringing up the subject of exes, it's just not enough to sustain a 90-minute show. And though there are intermittent pleasures in this musical, with book by Austin Winsberg and songs by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, it's a struggle for the director and cast to pull together an entertaining show.

They give it their all, though. The guy on this date—a blind date, actually, that very special type of first date—is Aaron, a smart but mildly nerdy corporate finance professional who was left at the altar by his ex-fiancee. He's played by Charlie Lubeck, one of two Equity actors in the cast, and Lubeck is a likable presence with a nice singing voice and frequently a good sense of comic timing. He's not as well matched by Dana Parker, who plays his date, the artist Casey. Parker has the disadvantage of being the female lead in a musical written by three men, who may try to give equal time and equal satirical licks to both genders but really are more sympathetic to the men herein. Casey is pessimistic about the date and works to intentionally sabotage it. We're a good hour into the show before the writers start to flesh her out so that we all don't dislike her as much as she seems to want Aaron to.

The supporting players have better luck—maybe because they don't have to sustain real characters, but rather get to play roles in short scenes that would be more suited for sketch comedy or improv. Shea Coffman, as Aaron's buddy Gabe—who, like the other ensemble members, appears via the thoughts and memories of the two daters—has a winning, macho presence as a self-described professional lover. Adam Fane plays a variety of characters, including Casey's gay best friend, and also has a very clever bit as the imagined son of Aaron and Casey rapping about his mixed-faith upbringing and angst. Coffman and Fane also deliver one of the show's funnier songs, "That's Why You Love Me," in which they play two of the "bad boys" to whom Casey has previously been attracted. The two women in the ensemble have nothing so much fun to play. Anne Litchfield Calderon is Aaron's ex, shown to be a cold, self-centered woman; Cassie Slater is Casey's all-knowing, advice-giving big sister. John Keating has some fun with his role as the gay waiter at the restaurant where Casey and Aaron meet for their date.

Director J.R. Rose keeps the action moving, but he has he cast push way too hard, as if to say, LISTEN ... THIS IS FUNNY! He would have been better off with a more wry touch that would have let the more resonant jokes land on their own recognizability and the more lame jokes just wink at their own lameness. The production does have a good physical look. Thad Hallstein's set design provide a realistic big city bar/restaurant and Raquel Adorno's costumes are believably realistic for the daters (and the waiter) and fanciful for the ensemble's various characters.

Those of us who love the art form appreciate efforts like this to make the musical relevant and appealing to new generations, and it may well be that those who have more recently experienced blind dates will find this a particular hoot. For the rest of us, it's an uneven affair.

First Date is in an open-ended engagement at the Royal George Cabaret, 1641 N. Halsted, Chicago. For tickets and more information visit www.firstdatechi.com.


Photo: Cole Simon

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-- John Olson



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