The bar was set pretty low for the second annual ACT Theatre/5th Avenue Theatre collaboration, following 2011’s leaden Vanities; and this year’s production, a slight sitcom of a musical called First Date, clears the hurdle easily. But even taken on its own merits, First Date is passable musical theater entertainment, with a peppy if forgettable rock score and a game ensemble cast.
Eric Ankrim and Kelly Karbacz star as Aaron and Casey, opposite halves of a blind date. He’s a nebbishy Jewish boy with a corny sense of humor; she’s a sarcastic faux-artist who’s ready to give up on love. Neither is thrilled to be on a blind date, and it doesn’t help matters that exes, friends, relatives, and therapists keep interrupting their headspace with songs of hang-ups and inadequacy.
Austin Winsberg’s book provides a sturdy frame for these imagined flights of fancy, and the ensemble of Richard Gray, Benjamin Harris, Vicki Noon, Brandon O’Neill, and Billie Wildrick is fully committed to farcical transformations from fellow diners and waiter into ball-busting former flames, concerned friends, and hectoring grandparents.
First Date’s ethos positions it as a modern take on a well-worn genre, and it’s a tricky proposition, considering the inherently old-fashioned nature of a lot of musical theater convention. As the show gets off to a rocky start, it’s not hard to imagine the whole thing playing out like a series of “hip references” on a CBS sitcom. Shudder for instance at Aaron’s lyric describing Casey as “kinda indie” in the number “First Impressions.”
Thankfully, Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner’s music and lyrics are generally more self-aware — the razzle-dazzle of “The World Wide Web is Forever” actually injects some life into the hidebound notion of digging up a date’s Internet dirt, and “I’d Order Love”‘s winking version of a schmoozy, schmaltzy lounge song is winningly played by Gray’s waiter character.
The show is generally at its most memorable when it abandons restraint, as in Harris’s increasingly excessive interludes as Casey’s friend, calling to give her an excuse to ditch the date. The character is a hideous mincing stereotype, but the propulsive beat of his “Bailout Song” actually sticks in the brain for longer than its runtime, unlike most of the rest of Zachary and Weiner’s repertoire.
Like Harris, every member of the cast gives it their all, and it helps elevate the frequently creaky material enough that the show’s ephemeral nature doesn’t really reveal itself until after the curtain call. Matthew Smucker’s bistro scenic design is purely perfunctory (after his incredible work on the 5th’s Oklahoma!, he can coast for a while as far as I’m concerned) and Bill Berry’s direction is dryly functional. First Date is pretty likeable inside the theater, but its pleasures tend to fade before the car doors are even unlocked.
First Date is on stage through May 20 at ACT’s Falls Theatre. The show plays Tuesdays through Sundays. Tickets are available for purchase online.