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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

Vibrant Cast Excels in Lackluster
First Date at ACT Theatre

Also see David's reviews of It Shoulda Been You and South Pacific

First Date
Eric Ankrim and Kasey Karbacz
Feeling more like a revue of singles dating and all that goes with it, ACT Theatre and 5th Avenue Theatre have wasted an excellent cast and production on a piffle of a musical called First Date. Workshopped less than a year ago here, it's hard to imagine these venerable companies spending prodigious effort on such a minor work. To be sure, a lot of the opening night cast and press reps seemed to enjoy every bit of its 90 intermission-less minutes. But if you looked carefully, there were plenty of bored faces in the mix. Last year the two theatres got roasted by most critics, myself not included, for doing the imperfect yet superior musical version of Vanities. All I can say is, send in those cheerleaders.

The plot, what there is of it, is easy to explain. A nerdy, tightly wound investment banker named Aaron is on a blind date with loquacious artist Casey at a popular bar and restaurant. As they strive to determine whether they have so little in common that it's a phenomenon, the couples around them and a jovial waiter with showbiz aspirations become the Greek chorus, buttinsky inner voices, ex-amours, etc. By evening's end the pair ... ah, that would be telling, and I will leave the conclusion to you, dear reader. The score of the show by composers and lyricists Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner sounds mostly like some of the (better) cut-out show tunes that ended up in the revues Starting Here, Staring Now and Closer Than Ever by Maltby and Shire. The shell of a book by Austin Winsberg makes us care a little about Aaron, it's true, but not much about Casey, and not a whit about anyone else. That task is left to an extraordinary cast, directed to give 101% in all departments by director Bill Berry who gives the whole show a sheen and polish, and Josh Prince who provides the crowd-pleasing choreography.

Seattle's "It" man, triple-threat talent Eric Ankrim (barely out of the Oklahoma cornfields at the 5th where he played Curly), is so amazing as Aaron that if I were a moneyed producer I would sign him to a life-time contract. In First Date Ankrim is like Danny Kaye meets Bobby Morse meets Neil Patrick Harris meets the Dream date from the old board game "Mystery Date" with the voice of Matthew Morrison to boot. Though the whole cast does great, Ankrim is the best reason to see the show. Less able to rise above the script and score's mediocrity, though clearly a talent to be reckoned with, is Kelly Karbacz as Casey. Karbacz is someone you'd want to see do Marta in Company or Fran in Promises, Promises, with her strong voice and attractive looks. She and Ankrim do have couple believability here, and that counts for a lot.

Providing the big laughs are two of Seattle's best actor/singers, Brandon O'Neill and Richard Gray, and one new to me, Benjamin Harris. O'Neill is at times achingly funny as the inner voice of Ankrim, constantly telling him he's doing something wrong, and congratulatory when Ankrim makes a right move. Gray wears the endearing funny hat as the waiter/show-biz wannabe and nails his big number effortlessly, and Harris is hilarious in a running gag as Casey's faithful gay best friend who has been enlisted to make repeated faux phone calls to get her out of the date as needed, then verges on hysteria with Silence of the Lambs scenarios dancing in his head. Harris keeps the bits freshly funny, though as written, they are predictable shtick. Powerhouse actress/singers Vicki Noon and Billie Wildrick go above and behind the material they are handed and, under the swinging musical direction of R.J. Tancioco and a grade A band and expert sound design by Kai Harada, the entire company sounds just great.

Matthew Smucker's scenic design is dandy eye-candy, Alex Berry's lighting is attractively employed, and Frances Kenny's costumes are big-city chic. Re-reading my own review, I realize I had a moderately good time at First Date, despite the slim material. But I won't be going back for a second.

First Date runs at ACT's Falls Theatre through May 20th. For tickets or information you can contact either the 5th Avenue at 206-625-1900 or www.5thavenue.org or ACT at 206-292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org.


Photo: Chris Bennion



- David Edward Hughes



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