“First Date” well worth a second
When asked by her blind-date-of-the-moment Aaron how she feels about blind dates, without skipping a beat Casey says “I’d put them up there with Pap smears and M. Night Shyamalan movies.”
That,in a nutshell, captures the lead characters in First Date, the clever contemporary musical that closes the summer season at Mason Street Warehouse. He’s a quirky yet stable nice guy, a self-described occasional idiot on his first-ever blind date; she’s edgy, sassy, creative, and such a serial dater Aaron gives her the nickname BDS, an acronym for blind date slut.
Things get off to a rocky start, as they do, and one uncomfortable moment after another ensues. Religion, exes, the awkward pause, the dreaded friend-zone, complicated family histories, her biological clock, the “bail out” calls from a friend, and who pays the check come up and are the subjects of hilarious musical numbers.
As Aaron and Casey reveal themselves to one another, they reveal themselves to the audience. And for this show to succeed, we must recognize and fall in love with both of them. In Director Kurt Stamm’s capable hands, that’s exactly what happens in this production and why it goes far beyond a “singing sitcom,” which is how the New York Times described this show two years ago when it opened on Broadway.
Yes, the story is predictable and full of familiar situations, but what makes this show exceptional are its strong performances and terrific attention to detail.
Jeff Smith is a perfectly likable Aaron and embodies his awkwardness with impeccable timing and nimble physicality. Natalie Storrs’ Casey is sharp and sophisticated with just the right amount of vulnerability. She has an enormous voice and captures a wide range of emotion in songs with interesting lyrics and forgettable music that sounds terrific under Jamie Reed’s musical direction and the accompaniment of a live band. They have good chemistry and their rapport shifts and changes throughout the show.
In addition to Storrs and Smith, five very talented actors play 20 other distinctly amusing characters, and everyone is on stage for practically the entire show. It makes for a full, lively stage and a quick-paced show with never a lull.
Bryant Martin is wonderful as Aaron’s slightly douchey dude-bro best friend as well as one of Casey’s “bad boy” exes. Laurie Gardner is larger than life in her various roles, most notably Casey’s know-it-all sister, with an extraordinary singing voice; Bebe Brown shows her acting acumen with her facial expressions alone; Joe Cavaiani manages to turn the clichéd bitchy gay best friend into a real character; and Phillip McLellan could easily pull off the one-man show his character, the waiter, dreams of having. They’re wonderful, hysterical, and do more with these characters than one might expect.
Their collective performances really are the heart of this show’s conceit: it’s never just two people on a date or eventually in a relationship. Each person brings an entourage of family, friends, therapists, and exes. In “First Date,” each musical number is a break away from the driving narrative of Casey and Aaron’s date into their pasts and what they’re really thinking. It makes for a uniquely engaging plot with more depth than one might expect.
This show is also visually appealing. Set Designer Jeremy Barnett created various interesting spaces within the confines of a modern bar/restaurant set against the backdrop of a city skyline, and Jennifer Kules’ lights provide tonal shifts and moods necessary to show change within the limits of a set that changes only once. They work beautifully with Stamm’s always-full stage balanced with often surprisingly athletic blocking.
Because it all works so well—even when Casey and Aaron’s date isn’t going so well—we’re rooting for the two of them. Even though at the end they’re wondering “if this will be the something that will last,” the audience knows. And regardless of the outcome of their first date, Mason Street Warehouse’s First Date does indeed leave a lasting impression—and not of the Pap smear or M. Night Shyamalan variety.