Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - August 8, 2013
First Date Book by Austin Winsberg. Music and Lyrics by Alan Zachary & Michael Weiner. Directed by Bill Berry. Musical staging by Josh Rhodes. Music supervision, vocal and incidental music arrangements by Dominick Amendum. Scenic and media design by David Gallo. Costume design by David C. Woolard. Lighting design by Mike Baldassari. Sound design by Kai Harada. Hair design by Josh Marquette. Orchestrations by August Eriksmoen. Cast: Zachary Levi, Krysta Rodriguez, featuring Kate Loprest, Kristoffer Cusick, Blake Hammond, Kate Loprest, Bryce Ryness, with Eric Ankrim, Kevin Kern, Vicki Noon, Sydney Shepherd.
Though it’s possible that TV fans familiar with Levi’s detailed performance as the title character of the silly computer geek–turned–super spy series Chuck may not be surprised at this, even they may be shocked at just how comfortable Levi is on the stage. His natural firm-but-reluctant confidence, robust singing voice, and Phil Silvers–style physicality combine with sensitive acting and deadpan comic chops to form a complete, and completely satisfying, musical-theatre package.
He needs every stitch of those skills, too, as the character he's playing is more than a bit flaccid. A buttoned-up, conservative-dressing investment banker, Aaron has been off the market for a while: first because he was engaged to a woman named Allison, and for the last 14 months because she dumped him at the altar. Add in his utter inexperience at blind dating, and he becomes a man who exists strictly for the worst of dramatic reasons: to have his world turned upside down, in this case by the serial dater Casey (Krysta Rodriguez), whom he's come to a quasi-classy New York bar-restaurant to meet.
Levi, however, transforms this stock personality into something special by making Aaron's unique brand of nerdiness cool. Though he's frequently caught off guard at the worst possible moments — while applying eye drops, immediately after having chomped down on a pickle, after realizing that an attempt at playful banter came off as far more insulting than he intended — Levi takes command and control of every single one. Barreling through each situation with a casual-feeling I-meant-to-do-that attitude, he becomes immediately endearing as the loser who's determined both to make good and to change permanently from the inside out.
It's tough not to respect, admire, and even root for Aaron as the date progresses, because Levi molds his every failure into a success. And so successful is he at fashioning a thrilling portrait of a well-meaning guy who doesn't quite have all the luck that everything else tends to feel more lackluster than it might under other circumstances.
There's nothing wrong with the kind of good-old-fashioned (think: mid-60s) disposable evening that librettist Winsberg and songwriters Zachary and Weiner have so unabashedly crafted. In many ways, it's even charming, with a delightful opening number ("The One") that zestily hints at Manhattan's (theoretically) limitless partnering opportunities, and a top-to-bottom geniality in its writing and atmospheric swagger (presided over by musical stager Josh Rhodes and director Bill Berry, both making solid contributions) that's difficult to resist even when you may be sorely tempted to do so.
But try as it might, First Date cannot escape the problems baked into its premise. Romantic musical comedies typically derive their weight and heat from the vagaries and conflicts inherent in conducting relationships, with the songs and dances exploring the deeper feelings that such intimacy encourages. Even if you hit it off with someone right away, the basic ice-breakers (“What do you do?”, “What do you like?”, etc.) are about the best you have to work with. A show that's about just those initial sparks flying is, by necessity, shallow, unless its writers get far more creative or adventurous than Winsberg, Zachary, and Weiner ever do.
Much better is the presence of Kristoffer Cusick, as the excitable Reggie, who calls Casey at regular intervals to give her an easy out if she's not enjoying her night, and a scene in which the pair admit to Googling each other, the latter a welcoming nod to 21st-century social mores. Zachary and Weiner's tunes are always catchy, if seldom distinctive, and David Gallo's set and media design and Mike Baldassari's lights conjure a lively contemporary-fairy-tale New York that's the right setting for all this almost-frivolity.
Although most of the supporting players acquit themselves well — though Hammond is over the top in by far the weakest role — Rodriguez disappoints somewhat. Though she displayed occasional fire in the (largely lamentable) second season of Smash, little of it is in evidence here. Casey seems to cry out for a fiercely funny, rafter-raising belter, and though Rodriguez is likable enough, her low-key takes on her dialogue and vocals mesh with neither the free-spirited Casey or the reality of the production around her.
The most prominent feature of that reality being, of course, Levi. He so blazes through his role, unveiling every color in Aaron's personality and then some, that our expectations for Rodriguez — and everyone else — keep getting raised beyond their ability to reach them. Perhaps that's unfair or less than ideal, but Levi's application of sheer entertainment fusion is the electrifying glue that this evening needs much, much more of. Absent it, First Date has no trouble being pleasant company, but it never makes you want to take it home.