BWW Review: So Cal Premiere of FIRST DATE a Surprise Charmer at La Mirada
I think we can all agree that jumping into the dating pool can be both highly exhilarating and incredibly frightening, depending on one's state of mind upon entering such an activity. The latter, more stressful of the two reactions, of course, is particularly elevated when one embarks on that funny little thing we all refer to as a "blind date"---that anxiety-riddled pastime of going out on a date with someone you've never met or know very little about... and, which has been set-up by a mutual friend, acquaintance, or, perhaps, even a family member.
You've heard that clichéd promise before...
"Ohmigosh, I know someone you'd be perfect for!" exclaims that someone in your life who---depending on the outcome of this set-up---will have either become your favorite person in the world or, worse, end up on the top of your sh*t list.
Eventually, when two people willingly agree to go on that first meeting, they usually start off with these two things hovering above them: first, each person places importance on being as impressive and (in a way) as attractive as possible to the other person, particularly if one is even somewhat into the other person. At the same time, each dater also, upon gazing at each other, will no doubt make snap judgment calls about the other right off the bat---understandably over-analyzing the situation via first impressions and, perhaps, some deeper discussions... before evaluating all the possibilities.
I suppose the same can be said about new (or, well, new-ish) stage shows, too.
In a way, like with blind dates, both approaches were certainly a necessity when embarking on an initial meet-up with FIRST DATE, a relatively new, original musical that made its quiet Broadway bow back in 2013---and is now finishing up its Southern California regional premiere performances at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts through October 11.
Featuring a book by Austin Winsberg and music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, this fresh new musical is neither a revitalized revival or a new production of a familiar property. Heck, it's not even an adaptation of a famous movie or book. In addition, the show itself drew very little fanfare or attention during its original Broadway run (well, at least not like other hits did), and so, eventually, it closed after just five months despite the star power of its enchanting, very likable pair of original lead actors (former Chuck, now Heroes Reborn star Zachary Levi and current co-star of the new SPRING AWAKENING revival, Krysta Rodriguez).
So, in essence, seeing this little-seen show now in a brand new, thoroughly attractive So. Cal. production is very much like going on that first blind date---you're certainly excited to meet someone new and likable, but you're also a little trepidatious as to what surprises the evening may bring, having very little knowledge going into it.
Suffice it to say, though there's nothing really groundbreaking or transcendent taking place in this stage musical (which aren't necessarily must-have qualities all shows should possess), I nonetheless found FIRST DATE to be an engaging, surprisingly adorable, cutesy rom-com-esque musical with lots of genuinely funny and entertaining moments sung and acted out by a truly winning ensemble cast. In a way, FIRST DATE and I... we, like, totally shared a meet-cute moment.
Like most first encounters, FIRST DATE seems to try really hard to impress right from the start. But as the characters start to ease into the mechanics of the show and earn our attention, the musical becomes beguiling.
As the title clearly spells out, FIRST DATE chronicles one particular first blind date---unspooling in real time over the course of one revelatory evening---between nerdy awkward Aaron (Marc Ginsburg) and cynical hipster Casey (Erica Lustig) at an undisclosed, hip-looking New York City nightspot (Stephen Gifford's set, lit by Steven Young, mimics similar NYC haunts).
As the pair of really purttty, self-aware daters get to know one another by peeling away layer after layer of personal tidbits about each other---breaching everything from religion and politics to, yikes, past relationships---they are attended to by a wisecracking, highly-opinionated, but humorously observant gay waiter (Scott Drier), who generously dispenses both booze and advice to calm each of them.
Much of the comedy is mined from relatable dating nightmares and anxieties many of us have either experienced first hand or have seen dramatized in countless tv shows and movies. Aaron's nervous but adorkable nature easily endears him to us, but it takes a bit longer to warm up to the much more sardonic Casey, who seems a bit aloof and a bit self-sabotaging to earn any care for her success (this is probably why the audience sort of sides with and feels protective of puppy-like Aaron at first).
Meanwhile we, the audience, become privy to the two daters' inner thoughts and feelings via a quartet of similarly contemporary and staggeringly attractive fellow background patrons---played by triple-threat chameleons Justin Michael Wilcox, Leigh Wakeford, Stacey Oristano and Kelley Dorney---who occasionally burst forward with pin-point timing to don new, very big personas to act out Aaron's and Casey's joy, insecurities, and turmoil in song (and plenty of hilarious asides).
As expected, the two daters enter into this scenario with mutual trepidation, and with lots of excess baggage from their perspective pasts. From the get-go, Aaron---who is still nursing the pain of a recent breakup with a long-time girlfriend---is a nervous wreck upon early arrival at the restaurant/bar. He is a diagnosed "BDV" ("Blind Date Virgin"), and is promptly instructed by the waiter to ditch his tie... and to try not to look like he's trying too hard. Later on, Casey---a very experienced "serial dater" with an unhealthy penchant for "bad boys"---is already anticipating her quick, inevitable exit from the date upon first meeting the more conservative, somewhat tightly-wound Aaron (she has such low expectations for this set-up that she has even recruited her flamboyant gay best friend to call in with a "bailout" just in case).
But, c'mon... you know pretty much before they even meet that these two crazy kids are destined for a happy ending together (the musical would probably be even shorter than its running time if this wasn't the case). Just like most love stories that start out with opposing, clashing protagonists that eventually grow to like each other as potential paramours, the pair at the center of FIRST DATE are pre-destined to like each other despite a plethora of situational and circumstantial hiccups purposely designed to throw them into a tizzy.
Clocking in at a brisk, intermission-less 90-plus minutes (a wise choice considering there's really not much story happening here), this admirable regional production of FIRST DATE---directed with a winsome musical-comedy swiftness by Nick DeGruccio---is (thankfully) a surprising charmer... a small, indie-like sleeper hit that will make you smile. What could have quickly devolved into a grating series of familiar tropes about dating in the modern, post-Millennium, social media-obsessed age reveals itself instead as a convincingly fresh, witty dramatization of the ever-so-common boy-meets-girl scenario (though, yes, the show does allow for some dated clichés to pop up here and there). As the show tries its cutest to sell us the idea that these two specific people belong with each other, it also becomes even more alluring---and, yes, funny---the further forward it moves along.
The show's primary approach---bringing both daters' active imaginations to life via its resident metamorphic standby repertory players---certainly keeps the show interesting, instead of us just merely eavesdropping on their small talk. No... FIRST DATE, instead, gives us full-on song-and-dance production numbers---featuring energetic choreography from Lee Martino and a pop-tastic score musically directed by Brent Crayon---to spell out each character's barely suppressed anxieties. Oh! And the added bonus? Broadway and musical theater fans will revel in the show's winking, tongue-in-cheek nods to other musicals---everything from HAIR and AVENUE Q to THE BOOK OF MORMON.
FIRST DATE has a very "of-the-moment," contemporary feel that's quite rare nowadays in most musicals (many of which are usually attached to a certain specific time period or past era). And though the show feels like a musical that could take place today, it can also feel right at home perhaps even a decade back or a decade forward.
However, the show also makes room for some oversimplified stereotypes, too---but thankfully, not so offensive enough to incite a Twitter tirade (Yes, in this musical, the two gay people in all of New York City that end up at this particular joint somehow find each other and have their own meet-cute).
But, of course, it is the central pair in FIRST DATE that keeps us truly invested in the musical---an ovation-worthy testament to the lovely work displayed by lead actors Ginsburg and Lustig. Thrust together to play potential lovers, the two have (eventual) convincing chemistry and are increasingly engaging to watch together as the evening progresses. They certainly play to the strengths of the old adage of "opposites attract."
The wonderfully nimble and admirably hardworking ensemble---perhaps the show's most valuable assets to keep the show flowing forward---also create a wide ranging universe for our two daters to interact with and react to---resulting in plenty of laughs amidst the cocktails, appetizers, and zingers. Wilcox and Wakeford---the same all-singing, all-dancing pair that impressed the heck outta me earlier this year in Musical Theatre West's superb revival of SINGIN' IN THE RAIN---are back in awesome form here, providing multiple, distinct personalities to seamlessly populate the show. Oristano and Dorney are equally spectacular, particularly as they play the very important female figures in our central couple's lives---but I'll spare spoiling the identity of their juicy roles for those of you who've yet to see the show.
On a side note, I admittedly got a bit giddy upon seeing Ms. Oristano on stage before me, as I am a huge fan of Amy Sherman-Palladino's shamefully short-lived ABC Family series Bunheads, which she co-starred in alongside Broadway vets/Tony winners Sutton Foster and Kelly Bishop. The fangirling me was thrilled to see her doing live theater out here on the West Coast!
So does FIRST DATE merit an outing? Sure! If you're looking for a cute little musical that's bubbly and entertaining, and free of those pesky Big Important Themes, then the answer is yes... you'll definitely want to swipe right on this match up.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photos from the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts' Southern California premiere production of FIRST DATE by Jason Niedle.
Performances of FIRST DATE - A MUSICAL COMEDY at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts in the city of La Mirada, CA continues through Sunday, October 11, 2015. The theater is located at 14900 La Mirada Boulevard. Parking is Free.
For tickets, visit www.LaMiradaTheatre.com or call (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310.