Regional Reviews: Florida - Southern
Also see John's review of Man of La Mancha
Centered around one fateful, flawed, and fabulous blind date, the musical speaks loudly to the 20-something slugging his or her way through the wonderful world of dating in the modern age. Cell phones, social media, and online dating sites are thrown into the mix of meddling friends and family. Even with the best of intentions it can all go so wrong that it's sometimes hard to remember that payoff at the finish line.
The story by Winsberg seems simple enough at firstboy meets girl. In this case it's the "blind date virgin" Aaron (Clay Cartland) and the girl who has seen more than her fair share of blind dates, Casey (Erica Lustig). But our attention is held in place by the empathetic nature of the two main characters, and the identifiable plight of their story. We've all been thereperhaps more than once. Present is the awkwardness and anticipation of that first date when you hope everything goes perfectly even while preparing for it all to go wrong.
Director David Arisco has assembled the right cast for this production. The role of Aaron seems written for Clay Cartland. His fumbling flaws only make him more appealing. His inability to know when to filter what to say, his vulnerability, his sense of humor, and his sense of indignation make him just about irresistible. His full out performance of the song "In Love with You" is as comedic for the audience as it is cathartic for his character. He is beautifully paired with Erica Lustig. She embodies the somewhat jaded, prickly, and emotionally defensive energy of so many people merely protecting themselves from being hurt. With that hurt in mind, she does a beautiful job singing and acting the song "Safer" as she contemplates her choices at hand. The inevitable end (the couple getting together) is actually not so sure in her hands. It's a refreshing take on a potentially predictable tale to have her character unconvinced until the end. It keeps us guessing.
Music is played by a live, 5-piece band led by Manny Schvartzman. The score is well played, but at times becomes loud enough to hide some of the harmonies in the group numbers.
Their date takes place in a slick-looking restaurant set designed by Tim Bennett. Their all too savvy waiter, played by Roland Rusinek, has seen it all before. Not surprisingly, he'd really rather be performing than waiting tables, as demonstrated by his comedic delivery of the song "I'd Order Love." Jessica Booth alluring plays Aaron's sexy, self-centered ex-girlfriend who taunts his memory until he's finally able to purge her from his system.
As Aaron continues to make dating etiquette mistakes he is aided by the prodding of his best friend Gabe played by Nick Duckart. Duckart delivers saving advice with the coarse urgency Aaron needslater appearing as one of the tattooed, head-banging ex-boyfriends of Casey. He's the ultimate "bro" we all desperately needdespite the fact that they may occasionally embarrass us. Laura Hodos, as Casey's married sister Lauren, entertainingly delivers her own brand of eye-opening dating advice to the emotionally distant Casey.
Conor Walton is hysterical as Casey's very flamboyant and over-dramatic best friend. His all too colorful reappearances as he checks in with Casey via cell phone become a nearly guilty pleasure during the show. His song "Bail Out" rings of truth as nearly everyone I know who has ever gone on a blind date does indeed have a bestie lined up to call them on their date, just in case they need to be "bailed out." Fortunately, this First Date is not one from which the audience will want to be bailed out, as the production is delightful from start to finish.
First Date will be appearing through April 12, 2015, at the Actors' Playhouse, at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables. Information and tickets may be obtained by contacting the theater at their box office at 305-444-9293, 305-444-9293, or online at www.actorsplayhouse.org.
Actors' Playhouse is the nonprofit resident theatre company and managing agent of the historic Miracle Theatre on Miracle Mile in Coral Gables. Actors' Playhouse, which has brought home 75 regional Carbonell Awards for artistic excellence, is a Florida Presenting Cultural Organization and one of 22 major cultural institutions in Miami-Dade County. In addition to its Mainstage season, Actors' Playhouse offers a year-round season of Musical Theatre for Young Audiences, a National Children's Theatre Festival, a Theatre Conservatory and Summer Camp Program, as well as educational arts outreach programs for underserved youth, and has initiated a "Young Talent Big Dreams" contest for children in partnership with The Children's Trust. Actors' Playhouse is located at 280 Miracle Mile in Coral Gables, Florida. Performances are usually Wednesday - Saturday at 8:00 PM, and Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 PM.
*Designates a member of Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.
Photo: Alberto Romeu