By Barry Reszel
With reports of shows waiting in queue (including the amazing Amazing Grace that previewed in Chicago last fall) for one of 40 New York venues with the 500 seats needed to earn its productions “Broadway” distinction, it’s hard to understand how First Date ever made it to the top of the list.
But those five glorious months in late 2013 and early 2014 allow producers to stage this trite, predictable, sometimes foul, occasionally funny, not-good-enough script and songbook across the country with the moniker, “Broadway’s Musical Comedy.”
Don’t be fooled, Chicagoland.
While a team of young actors at Chicago’s Royal George Theatre’s cabaret space on North Halsted give it their best (just out of) college try, they simply can’t save the material from being as awkward as the real thing. And that’s a shame, because the common experience of a blind date set up by well meaning friends or relatives has oh so much potential.
First Date could be the contemporary equivalent of Neil Simon, Carole Bayer Sager and Marvin Hamlisch‘s, They’re Playing Our Song or even Joe DiPietro and Jimmy Roberts‘, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. Both of these successful works find the proper balance of comedy, tenderness and introspection. They don’t merely try to get by on the premise of a relationship musical, they bring the audience to care about the characters.
First Date‘s author Austin Winsberg drew caricatures rather than writing compelling characters. His leading man, Aaron, is a shy dweeb and his leading lady, Casey, is a serial-dating, bad boy-loving mess. Set up by Casey’s sister and brother-in-law, the two meet for a drink.
If Aaron and Casey were real, the date wouldn’t make it to consumption of the martini’s olives.
Onstage, the lead couple’s conversation is extended and, thankfully, interrupted by a small, funny ensemble of restaurant folk and voices in the daters’ heads. Particularly notable are Aaron’s gross best friend who only counsels Aaron on how he might score; Casey’s sister who wants Casey barefoot, pregnant and living alongside her on the North Shore; Aaron’s ex who left him at the chuppah; and Casey’s gay best friend, a Justin Bieber lookalike, who keeps calling to save her, only to get her voicemail. A full character list, plot synopsis and production history may be read here.
There are a few genuinely funny moments, mostly brought on by the ensemble: “This isn’t the girl for you — oy oy oy! This isn’t the girl for you — a goy goy goy!” But the first 3/4 of this one-act, 100-minute production is made up largely of sophomoric, innuendo-laden attempts at humor. So when a touch of tenderness then appears, it’s simply too late for patrons to care about either of these characters or whether they have a relationship beyond tonight.
This production’s highlights aren’t found in the book or the music by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner. They are found in Dana Parker‘s characterization of Casey and Charlie Lubeck‘s of Aaron. And the opening night ensemble of Cassie Slater, Shea Coffman, Anne Litchfield Calderon, Adam Fine and John Keating do all they can with the material given. Shout out to Keating for his waiter’s song, “I’d Order Love,” the most memorable of this songbook.
In fairness, the tweets, texts and shout-outs lauding this show posted at the musical’s official website, firstdatethemusical.com, are from twentysomethings closer to startup courtship experiences than this reviewer. And tickets as low-priced as $15 for a show in a very intimate room certainly make this professional, live performance affordable enough.
It’s just that this production feels about as awkward as a first date.
“First Date,” produced by Jeanne McInerney and First Date, LLC, performs in an open-ended run Thursdays through Sundays in the cabaret space at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted St., Chicago. Tickets range from $15 to $59 and are available at the box office, by calling 312-988-9000 or online here.