BWW Review: FIRST DATE at Starlight Theatre
Appropriate for Valentine's month 2017 is the 2012 musical play "First Date" playing indoors at Starlight Theatre for the first time. "First Date" is a funny, insightful, clever, tuneful, and occasionally profane rendering of a blind date in the 21st century. It is the perfect opportunity to laugh out loud at the endemic awkwardness of meeting someone new.
Most Starlight productions are of the touring variety, but "First Date" is exceptionally well produced, cast, and directed on site. Most of the five excellent, mostly local, professional, cast members are drawn from the metro area. It is so good that "First Date" could easily take to the road after its scheduled month long run at Starlight.
Aaron and Casey have been fixed up by a coworker of Aaron's who also happens to be Casey's brother-in-law. They meet in a New York City bar and grill. Aaron (Shea Coffman) is a work obsessed, Wall Street financial type. He is the guy whose Jewish Grandmother, Bubbe Ida, would and does term him "a nice Jewish boy." He is a little closed off because he has only recently broken up with a fiancé. We learn Aaron was left standing alone at the marriage chuppah unsuccessfully awaiting for his run-a-way bride.
Casey (Lauren Braton) is an artistic, wild child type. She is anything but the "nice Jewish girl" Bubbe Ida would have picked. She is an agnostic, experienced, and exotic fallen away Catholic. She has worked at various jobs, but her hidden passion is art photography. Casey is a serial dater. Outwardly, she is a hip New Yorker. Inside, however, Aaron and Casey are not all that different.
Backing up the blind daters are three additional actors, Andrew Schmidt, Francisco Javier Villegas, and April Strelinger. Individually and as a group, these three serve as kind of a Greek chorus to Aaron and Casey. They are the voices inside the leads heads as the date proceeds. They play a crowd of additional characters who pop up in all kinds of places. Generally, when they do appear, the action freezes on the blind date. These guys are every bit as talented and important to the show as the featured characters. Director Caroline Lakin Gibel has cut the number of Greek Chorus members from six in the original Broadway version down to three here. I suspect this way is funnier.
Let me explain. Casey has pre-anticipated that this date will be a probable disaster. She has asked her gay buddy Reggie (Francisco Villegas) to call her cell phone with a bailout excuse. He does call repeatedly, Casey sees the caller ID and lets the phone ring. Each time Reggie phones he becomes a tad more outrageously desperate all to great comic effect. The more often Reggie goes to voice mail the funnier the bit gets. A moment later the same actor (Villegas) shows up as Gabe, Aaron best high school friend and school stud. This kind of transition continues with each ensemble actor playing multiple characters. April Strelinger starts out as Aaron's Bubbe Ida, transforms to Casey's married sister, then to Aaron's departed fiancé, and several others. Andrew Schmidt splits time as the restaurant waiter, a rock star, a minister, and a rabbi and again among several others.
These three in the ensemble are skilled vocally and as comic actors. Watching them race from character to character, wig to wig, costume piece to costume piece, and song to song becomes a game for the audience. You wonder who will pop up where first and why.
"First Date" is a kind of a New York/Broadway in-joke. It lasted for about five months on its original Broadway run, but the show is better than that. Like others of its genre, the original music owes a debt to tunes from other shows. For example, when it is discovered that Casey is not Jewish, the song sung reminds one of "Fiddler" (L'Chaim" dance of the Yeshiva boys and Grandma's Screed). Later, the guitar part of Simon and Garfunkel's "Sound of Silence" is played on another song. Several other numbers are awfully familiar, but not immediately placeable.
The great thing about "First Date" is it does not take itself too seriously. While "First Date" is not great theater, it is a fun evening that allows its audience to let its hair down and enjoy some very talented, outrageous, and fun performers. The book by Austin Winsberg combined with a score by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner just plain works. Carolyn Lakin Gibel's first Kansas City outing in direction should not be her last.
"First Date" continues through February 26. Tickets are available from the Starlight website or by telephone at 816-363-7827.
Photo provided by Starlight Theatre