Review: A Cute FIRST DATE at the Carrollwood Cultural Center

The production runs through September 25.

By: Sep. 18, 2022
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Review: A Cute FIRST DATE at the Carrollwood Cultural Center

Going to a show without knowing what it's about it not too different from being on a blind date: 1) It can start off shaky, or even horrid, and end up happy; 2) it can begin strongly but ultimately lose its way; 3) it can be shockingly stellar from first moment to last; or 4) it can depressingly start in an awful mode and never recover (where an obvious bailout call is needed). I saw the small-scale musical, FIRST DATE, at the Carrollwood Cultural Center last night without knowing much about it; guess which of the above scenarios matched my experience?

FIRST DATE, with music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner and a book by Austin Winsberg, focuses on an awkward blind date between two New Yorkers, nerdy Aaron and "artsy" Casey. We follow every disastrous and heartfelt moment of their encounter, from the not-very-positive first impressions of each other, to that award pause where neither knows what to say, to the moment they get the dinner check, all leading to the evening's end, where maybe a hopeful goodnight kiss awaits. It's an incisive musical at times, sometimes cute, sometimes edgy, with some funny bits and lots of heart.

I went into FIRST DATE relatively blind; I had seen and heard some of the songs performed at Thespian festivals in the past, but otherwise I came in without any preconceptions. And of the above scenarios, #1 came closest to my reactions. The show started off quite shakily, a rocky and rough beginning, where the first song, a group number entitled "The One," just didn't cut it for me. Red flags went off; was I in for a disastrously long evening of theatre? Some other songs didn't work later in the show, including "That's Why You Love Me," which unfortunately sounded like a shrieky off-night Karaoke at The Brass Tap after a few too many green tea shots.

Things get a bit more grounded when we meet Aaron and Casey, even though Winsberg's dialogue sounds way too sit-commy and forced for my tastes. But something miraculous happened during the show. I suddenly became quite invested in the story of these two imperfect individuals, and I began enjoying the hell out of it. During the first twenty minutes or so, I wondered if the show could ever survive its wobbly beginnings, but then it not only recovered from a rocky start, it soared. FIRST DATE became moving and funny and sincere and genuine, everything we want from a night at the theatre. Although inconsistent, the production ultimately won me over.

The cast is overall wondrous.

As the bespectacled Aaron, an BDV ("Blind Date Virgin"), Craig Ruska comes across as a synthesis of Seymour Krelborn, J. Pierrepont Finch and actor Charles Martin Smith. Dressed a bit "douchey" in a coat and tie (the tie later removed), Ruska has crisp comic timing and superior vocal chops, and although it's not a naturalistic performance, it is quite effective and entertaining. We are rooting for him, even when the character makes some cringey mistakes that make his date--and the audience--quite uncomfortable. Ruska's duet on "The Things I Never Said," with his real-life wife, Erin Ruska playing his mother, will bring tears to your eyes.

Kara Doyle is wonderful, with a marvelous singing voice, as Aaron's blind date, Kara, a young woman used to dating bad boys. However, she keeps being described as "artsy," but there's nothing in her demeanor or dress that would suggest this "artsy" persona (we later learn she works in a gallery). Also, early on, when Aaron labels her a BDS--a "Blind Date Slut"--she just sits there, not really reacting. I'm sorry, but if early on a date, someone suggests you are a slut, you would probably and heatedly respond, maybe even getting up to leave.

Mr. Ruska and Ms. Doyle make for an endearing couple, and we like both of them quite a bit, mainly because it's not just that we know's because we are them. (And if you are a fan of "Quantum Leap," then this is the show for you.)

Erin Ruska and Ashley Whitting shine in a variety of roles, from Aaron's Jewish grandmother (Ms. Ruska) to his hurtful ex, Allison (Ms. Whiting). Mackley Fogarty and Chris Kadonsky-Grant are strong actors with wild energy in various parts, but their vocals in some of the numbers are not their strongest suit. Grant Sparr appears on hand for some much-needed energy, popping in as Reggie, Casey's "bailout" call in case her date fails. Sparr is electric onstage, something of a spark plug of a performer (or perhaps we should label him a Sparr Plug).

Marcus Blake is a standout as the waiter who comments on the actions of the first-daters, his "I Order Love" one of the highpoints of the night. And his puppet use at one point is laugh-out-loud funny (see the show to see why there is a puppet in the middle of this production). His deep vocals are off the charts, and without him in some of the group numbers, it could teeter on being unlistenable.

Music director Michelle Kadonsky-Grant leads the tight on-stage band which features Kathy Baker on piano, Rusty Wirt on bass and Kevin Adair on drums. A choreographer is mentioned in the program (Devan Bittinger), but there doesn't seem to be much dancing in this show.

Ultra-talented director Keith Eisenstadt, with help from his assistant director, Rhett Ricardo, deftly leads the way and gets the most out of his small cast. After the aforementioned rough opening, I really settled down and enjoyed the evening that he created. There are some brilliant touches, including the waiter listing the upcoming shows as menu items and specials. But then there were also some pacing issues, including a long, way too long, pause at the start (suddenly I thought I was watching a pantomime rather than a musical). Also, I would like to see a song list in the program; if this happened to be Rent or The Sound of Music, shows we all know, then no song list is needed. But most people don't know FIRST DATE, so a song list would be quite helpful to us newbies.

At one point in the show, when Aaron admits to having played Dolly Levi in an all-male production of Hello, Dolly! he says his performances was called "oddly compelling." That's one description that also fits FIRST DATE: Oddly compelling. And yet it speaks to so many people who have been on blind dates or are still in the dating pool. It's a musical that captures the zeitgeist of the past decade but that still speaks to us today, especially the song about the dangers of online dating and social media ("The World Wide Web Is Forever"). There are joys and frustrations spotlighted in the show, just as there are in life. FIRST DATE indeed has an edge--it mirrors modern times, so it better have some bite--but there's a dandy sweetness in it as well and a tonnage of spirit that will leave you smiling.

FIRST DATE plays at the Carrollwood Cultural Center until September 25th.


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