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First Date (08/08/2013 - 01/05/2014)


AP: "Inner voices confound couple in madcap Broadway musical 'First Date'"

An awkward blind date has the potential for great comedy — as long as it's not happening to you. In an alternate world, such a date might unfold amid a series of snappy musical numbers with irreverent lyrics. As the clumsy encounter unfolded, maybe the couple's inner baggage would even surround them with song and dance.

That's the entertaining idea behind the sassy new musical comedy, "First Date." The overall tone is satiric, but there's a sneakily persistent undercurrent of optimism in the fun, fast-paced production that opened Thursday night at the Longacre Theatre.

Handsome Zachary Levi (of TV's "Chuck") dons dorky glasses as nervous, nerdy, blind-date newbie Aaron. Krysta Rodriguez ("The Addams Family" and TV's "Smash") is world-weary and edgy as hip, jaded Casey, a sophisticated veteran of the dating wars.

After a cynical opening number about how difficult it is to find "The One," which includes daters' laments like, "Where the hell's the fairy tale!," the duo meet up in a restaurant. He's earnest and bumbling; she's suspicious and off-putting, giving him dating tips and judging his every move.

Their tentative conversation is soon interrupted with well-choreographed antics, performed by an ensemble of five energetic actors in multiple roles, as the seemingly mismatched couple's inner thoughts are enacted around them. A bevy of imaginary characters muddy the already-choppy waters, including disapproving relatives and inappropriate exes.

The book by "Gossip Girl" writer Austin Winsberg provides the couple with plenty of flippant repartee. A madcap mashup of musical styles and lyrics blazing with one-liners are provided by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner. Director Bill Berry keeps a steady pace amid the dynamic musical staging by Josh Rhodes.

Making his Broadway debut, Levi has a strong leading-man presence, smooth in his dance moves while handling Aaron's nervous gaffes with comedic flair. Aaron's baggage includes a womanizing best friend, Gabe (a sly, hipsterish Bryce Ryness), and a selfish, unstable ex-girlfriend, Allison (played with sultry aloofness by Kate Loprest). Levi knocks it out of the park with his mesmerizing solo, "In Love With You," a get-it-off-your-chest, often misogynistic number bursting with invective against Allison.

Rodriguez is polished and cool, gradually showing underlying vulnerability as Casey unbends a little. Casey interacts in her head with her still-alluring, bad-boy ex-boyfriends and her know-it-all big sister Lauren (Sara Chase), among others. Performing "Safer," Casey's lovely lament wondering why she can't find the right guy, Rodriguez delivers with emotion and class.

One of the funnier bits is a fevered performance by Kristoffer Cusick as Casey's best friend Reggie. He calls her several times to offer variations of "The Bailout Song," so she can get out of the date if necessary with an excuse. Blake Hammond is quite entertaining in a variety of roles, primarily as a waiter who encourages the daters toward success.

While many of the songs are harmlessly humorous, a religion-themed number, "The Girl For You," veers toward simplistically offensive, as Jewish stereotypes clash with Roman Catholic ones (Aaron's Jewish, Casey is not). Aaron brings up the subject of a treasured letter from his deceased mother (played by Chase) which seems oddly downbeat for a date, but leads into a poignant duet between Chase and Levi about a mother's love and regrets, called "The Things I Never Said."

"Something That Will Last" is Casey and Aaron's final duet, about the uncertainties of falling in love. Never mind love, will they even make it to a second date? The point is that after just 90 minutes with this mismatched couple and their comical parade of demanding advisers, we still care how it turns out.


New York Daily News: "First Date"

Let’s just say it: The mating-game musical “First Date” isn’t first-rate. Third-tier is more like it. Or below-deck, since this singing catalogue of cliches by a team of Broadway rookies would fit better on a cruise ship than the Great White Way.

The show follows financial analyst Aaron (Zachary Levi of “Chuck”) during his New York rendezvous with gallery girl Casey (Krysta Rodriguez of “Smash”). Aaron is nice (down to his blue suit and brown shoes), nerdy, stumbling, Jewish. Casey is spiky (including her cool red-and-black mini and black boots), confident, commitment-phobic, non-Jewish.

Can opposites attract? Oh, hell, what do you think?

But that’s the well-traveled road we’re led down by composers/lyricists Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, who’ve worked for Disney, and book writer Austin Winsberg, whose credits include “Gossip Girl.” Along the way, the trio hits every familiar mile marker — from inevitable awkward pauses to the who’ll-pay-the check dilemma. Zzzz.

The show unfolds in real time in a nondescript restaurant. A multitasking ensemble — Sara Chase, Kristoffer Cusick, Blake Hammond, Kate Loprest and Bryce Ryness — pop up, Greek chorus-style. They play friends, parents, siblings, ex-lovers and therapists who speak and sing in Aaron’s and Casey’s heads during the date.

The songs are peppy but generic. The script boasts a couple of laughs, including when Casey says a cheeseburger sounds great. “It sure does,” scolds her sister, “if you’re trying to make weight right before a big sumo wrestling competition.”

But that’s a bright spot amid buzzkill. Phone calls by Casey’s megagay BFF, intended to bail her out of the date if needed, increasingly grate. The lengthy solo by a singing waiter is filler in a show with two leads sitting frozen too much of the time.

That detail has escaped director Bill Berry, of Fifth Avenue Theatre in Seattle, where the show ran last year. His strategy: Throw in lots of tricks to see what sticks — megaphones, a leaf blower and talking video screens. But he lets Casey get saddled with saying things like “turn that frown upside down.”

Despite such clunkers, Rodgriguez cuts a strong presence. She has a pretty, but not especially colorful, voice. Levi, who sang in the cartoon “Tangled,” is a pleasant enough singer and does the required geeky self-deprecation very well. All fine, but not enough to recommend the show.

“First Date” runs 90 minutes without intermission. In other words, there’s no chance to bail out.

New York Daily News

New York Post: "It's a mismatch made in heaven"

By the end of Broadway’s “First Date,” Zachary Levi has won over the entire audience — you can feel everybody, women and men, young and old, swooning. If someone happened to smuggle in a small dog, you can bet it would go gaga over him, too.

He’s so remarkably at ease, it’s hard to believe the show — about a date unfolding in real time — marks his professional theater debut. And a singing one at that.

Levi spent five seasons as the star of the action-comedy series “Chuck,” in which he played a computer nerd who stumbles onto covert operations. His part here isn’t entirely dissimilar in spirit.

Levi’s Aaron is a gawky, likable corporate banker who’s been set up on a blind date by a colleague. This makes Aaron uncomfortably nervous, but he gamely trundles through, allowing Levi to set a new standard for adorkableness.

The show’s book, by Austin Winsberg (“Gossip Girl,” “Jake in Progress”), is neatly efficient. Aaron meets Casey (Krysta Rodriguez) at a restaurant, where their fellow diners and the waiter, changing costumes and personas at the drop of a hat, provide a kind of Greek chorus, alongside imaginary interventions from friends and family members.

But while Levi quickly wins us over, it’s harder to root for Rodriguez’s relentlessly caustic Casey.

The role is a tough one because Casey is such a cliché: the walking wounded hiding behind a cool, blasé exterior. “We both know that all this bravado is really just you being afraid of getting hurt,” her sister, Lauren (Sara Chase), tells her.

Just in case we still don’t get the message, Casey has a whole song, “Safer,” that explains how she uses sarcasm to protect herself from disappointment.

Rodriguez made a fine Wednesday in Broadway’s “The Addams Family,” but here she just duplicates her brittle performance as Katharine McPhee’s roommate, Ana, on TV’s “Smash.” She’s just not likable enough to make us overlook Casey’s rudeness.

Despite this imbalance, “First Date,” smoothly directed by Bill Berry, is a very pleasant show. Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner’s pop-rock score won’t dominate anybody’s iPod, but it’s perfectly adequate. The supporting cast does wonders in a variety of roles, especially the funny Kristoffer Cusick as Casey’s panicky gay friend, Reggie.

But the show really rests on Levi’s shoulders — and he carries it effortlessly.

The only clue we had that he could carry a tune was from his duet with Mandy Moore in Disney’s “Tangled.” Here, he turns out to be able to do far more than just sing a song: He can sell it. His 11 o’clock number, “In Love With You,” is a tour de force of comic timing, physical clowning and effective interpretation.

A loving relationship does come out of “First Date,” but it’s not between Aaron and Casey — it’s between Zachary Levi and theater. And it will last.

New York Post

New York Times: "Meet Cute and Prosper"

Who doesn’t love a blind date? Of course, by this I mean, who does?

I had one the other day, with the new Broadway musical “First Date.” I’d heard little about the show, and its authors were entirely unknown to me.

Didn’t go so well.

Does any of the following sound familiar? An instant lack of rapport; a growing aversion as the minutes pass; a mysterious sense that time has suddenly stopped; a desperate hope that the apocalypse will arrive, preferably right this minute. Magnify those feelings, set them to bland pop-rock music, and you’ll have some idea of the oodles of fun I didn’t have during my evening at “First Date,” the singing sitcom that opened on Thursday night at the Longacre Theater.

With a book by Austin Winsberg and a score by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, “First Date” depicts, in all-too-real time, the initial encounter between Aaron (the very winning Zachary Levi, of the series “Chuck”) and Casey (the big-voiced Krysta Rodriguez, of the little-lamented “Smash”), two generically mismatched New Yorkers who’ve been set up by her sister.

Aaron, who arrives at the appointed watering hole first, overdressed in suit and tie and rippling with nerves, is the Nice Jewish Boy with a good job (“investment banking,” “corporate finance,” “mergers and acquisitions” are all mentioned). Yet he has, apparently and none too plausibly, never before been on a blind date. Casey is his opposite, the Artsy Tough Chick who’s all hard angles and wary experience, attired in a flashy leather-and-lace dress and mildly threatening ankle boots.

“She’s kinda indie and pretty hot,” as Aaron sings, “and a lot like all the things that I am not.”

She’s kinda familiar, too: the cool serial dater with a thing for bad boys. Aaron is also a recognizable type: the sweet, slightly nebbishy but cute guy who’s had his heart kicked around. Groaningly obvious, too, is the antagonism that animates their getting-to-know-you banter, which is set to the mechanical rhythms of formulaic television comedies about single guys and gals on the loose and looking for love in the city.

After zigzagging between moments of bonding and alienating missteps (when Aaron learns that Casey’s an old hand at this, he jokingly nicknames her “Blind Date Slut”), these two all-wrong-for-each-other sorts begin to find common ground. Casey flares up in outraged sympathy upon hearing that Aaron’s fiancée dumped him at the altar — another minty-fresh twist — and by the evening’s end, they have established a tentative rapport, just in time for the curtain to fall on a passionate smooch. (Sorry, but no, that’s not a spoiler.)

Annotating the couple’s predictably rocky path to love, or at least a second date, are voices in their heads. Aaron is haunted by memories of his emasculating ex (Kate Loprest) and upbraided by his best buddy (Bruce Ryness) whenever he makes a rookie mistake, like bringing up the emasculating ex. Casey’s primary noodge is her sister, Lauren (Sara Chase), who pesters her about her ticking biological clock and her tendency to withdraw, then scolds Casey when she has the scandalous thought of ordering a burger, lamenting that she’ll “end up on ‘The Biggest Loser — “Gee, I Wonder Why I’m Still Single” Edition.’ ” (Aaron, meanwhile, gets an earful from his buddy when he ponders ordering a “sissy salad.”)

Casey also hears frequently — or rather we do — from her Gay Best Friend (Kristoffer Cusick), who rings her cellphone to give her a chance to “bail out.” Although the character is a noxious stereotype (his parting terms of endearment are “bitch” and “slut”), this song has a certain snazzy comic verve and is among the musical’s rare moments that approach originality. But then the Gay Best Friend comes back a second time, and a third, singing reprises of the same damn song, and your nerves start to fray.

Mine were in tatters long before he came flouncing onstage for the last time, having been shredded by the comic banality of most of the material. When Aaron discovers that Casey’s not Jewish, the supporting cast leaps into action, dressed in Orthodox costume, representing Aaron’s scandalized family. (Chorus: “This isn’t the girl for you — oy oy oy! This isn’t the girl for you — a goy goy goy!”)

When “First Date” tries to be serious, it’s no more inspired. Casey’s big, soul-baring number, “Safer,” brings us the unsurprising news that her tendency to shut down viable relationships stems from a fear of getting hurt. “I go building up walls, yet I wish to be found,” she plaintively sings.

And I wish to be anesthetized, Casey, particularly if you keep going on about Eckhart Tolle and “The Power of Now.”

I have been harsh on this modest musical, efficiently if facelessly directed by Bill Berry, so I should underscore that Mr. Levi and Ms. Rodriguez are both appealing performers. Although his singing is merely adequate, Mr. Levi brings a vitality and off-kilter humor to his performance and succeeds in rubbing away some of Aaron’s more generic qualities with his warmly quirky line readings. Ms. Rodriguez has the drearier role — it’s obvious that the show was written by three guys, since only the female characters are accessorized with flaws — but her singing is ardent and assured.

I also feel honor-bound to report that the audience at the performance I attended seemed to respond with genuine warmth. In fact, they were a virtual live laugh track, erupting with gusts of guffaws at each worn joke or familiar torque in the give-and-take between Aaron and Casey.

But even those who can never get their fill of dating-game gags would have to admit that the singles-searching-for-love thing was a lot fresher back in the 1990s, when “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and “Sex and the City,” along with their lesser ilk, began digging around this terrain. By now it’s been thoroughly strip-mined and needs to be reinvented, not just rehashed and set to mediocre music. A more appropriate title for “First Date” would be “Last Rites.”

New York Times

Newsday: "'First Date' review: No second necessary"

A lot of care has obviously been lavished on "First Date," the middling relationship musical-comedy that has somehow wandered onto Broadway after a start at Seattle's The 5th Avenue Theatre.

The cast is sweet: Zachary Levi ("Chuck") plays a straight-arrow nerdy guy and Krysta Rodriguez ("Smash") is a cool, artsy chick on a blind date in a restaurant. The structure has promise: their awkward getting-to-know-you banter freezes, periodically, so each can share internal monologues with us in song or production number by a Greek chorus of friends.

Unfortunately, his character is clueless, an insecure dullard with no nobler ambition than making money in his Wall Street job. And she, though more interesting, is tediously conflicted between commitment issues and, sigh, the ticking of her biological clock.

There is no credible reason for these people to belong together, except that author Austin Winsberg and composer-lyricists Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner put them into their well- staged, musically-generic little pop show.

Emotional clashes feel stunted; their friends are all cliches. She says she has dated a lot. He, not entirely joking, calls her a slut. Although the setting is New York today, the strangers get to know each other by talking about people they know who went to the same Jewish summer camp in Michigan. And, it turns out that she isn't Jewish, which is the cue for a visit from his dead grandmother (singing "I will break your matzo balls").

Her Catholic background gets spoofed with comparable rote amusement, after which they imagine their – gasp - "mixed-marriage" child. Among the nagging friends who appear in the fantasy scenes are her sister with the conventional marriage (Sara Chase), his neurotic ex-fiancee (Kate Loprest) and her flamboyant gay friend (Kristoffer Cusick) whose clever phone messages get less endearing with each repetition.

Rodriguez has a pingy, lively voice. So does Levi, though first he has to drag out a shameless dead mother story and he doesn't get an edgy song until about 85 minutes into the 90-minute show. Director Bill Berry contributes most of the brightest ideas with a throwaway glance here and a well-timed visual surprise there. The audience at Friday's preview appeared to be having a great time. But, really, if matchmaking is this forced and random, no wonder so many marriages don't last.


USA Today: "Check, please: 'First Date' is a bust"

Early in the new Broadway musical First Date (* ½ out of four), a waiter approaches a nervous-looking young man who has wandered into his restaurant. "So ... this is a first date?" the waiter surmises after a brief exchange.

The man, named Aaron, winces. "Is it that obvious?"

Well, yes — and so is just about everything else in this dopey midsummer entry, which opened Thursday at the Longacre Theatre.

The simultaneously dimwitted and hyperactive brainchild of TV scribe Austin Winsberg (Gossip Girl, Jake in Progress) and songwriters Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, First Date follows Aaron (Zachary Levi) and a gal, Casey (Krysta Rodriguez), as they meet over drinks and dinner. During an encounter that lasts, mercifully, only 95 minutes, the two reveal themselves to each other and to the audience. And suffice to say that no cliché is left unturned.

In their opening number, First Impressions — a rock-flavored, utterly generic contemporary show tune, typical of the score — Aaron, who's never been on a blind date before, worries that Casey, an old pro, is too "hip" for him, while she fears that he "likes to cuddle." It soon unfolds that he works in finance and ended a serious relationship not too long ago; she describes herself as a more creative type, though her main occupation seems to be avoiding romantic commitment.

References to M. Night Shyamalan and Google remind us that we are observing the mating ritual as it has evolved in the 21st century. But First Date is ultimately striking in its squareness. Casey's revelation that she is not Jewish — Aaron is — is followed by a cringe-inducing production number in which Aaron's dead grandmother and Casey's father take turns warning the prospective couple of their differences, fueled by Zachary and Weiner's increasingly lame stabs at politically incorrect humor.

The show introduces us to a number of similarly hokey, irritating supporting characters (juggled by five actors), several of whom appear in Aaron's and Casey's heads. There are the "edgy British guy" and "the edgy rocker guy" — identified as such in the libretto — from Casey's past, thrusting their crotches and boasting of their vices as she looks on longingly. There's her married sister, who nags Casey relentlessly about her poor judgment and ticking biological clock. There's Aaron's buddy, who begs him not to mention his "frigid, emotionally manipulative" ex-girlfriend, who also turns up.

For all the pains that First Date's creators take to stress Aaron's sensitivity, in fact, there's a whiff of misogyny in how his sad story of previous rejection plays out — and how he reacts, for that matter, when Casey expresses doubt about their chances.

Levi nonetheless manages to make Aaron likable enough, just as Rodriguez gives Casey an authentic, appealing tartness. And being a romantic comedy, of course, First Date ends on a hopeful note.

Still, when one of Casey's abrasive pals rings her — three times — to try to bail her out, you may well be tempted to ditch the proceedings yourself.

USA Today

Variety: "First Date"

“First Date,” a romantic musical comedy about the horrors, humiliations and occasional happy surprises of blind dates, is cute (but not too cute) and sweet (but not too sweet).  So, indications are that this appealing show will do well (but not too well) on Gotham’s Main Stem, despite having come out of nowhere and been assembled by no one you’ve heard of.  Creative team of Austin Winsberg (book) and collaborators Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner (music and lyrics) should thank their lucky stars for Krysta Rodriguez and Zachary Levi, who are seriously charming as mismatched blind daters destined to become lovers.

Ah, the joys of the modest musical, a rare commodity on Broadway these days but an ideal tenant for the intimately scaled and lovingly restored Longacre Theater.  Helmer Bill Berry, producing director of the 5th Avenue Theater in Seattle where the show originated, makes judicious use of his resources.  David Gallo’s unit set adapts to the various restaurants, wine bars, and cafes where all the dating and mating takes place, enhanced by the witty background projections of a big, bad, sexy city.  The design is nice and tight, a perfect fit for the stage, which Mike Baldassari has drolly lighted in those deeper shades of midnight-blue-to-black (with splashes of red) that are universal signifiers of moody music, hard liquor and sex.

The bar is packed with dating couples (for obvious budgetary reasons, scaled down to two boy-girl pairs, joined by a waiter) singing their hearts out in a rousing opening number (“The One”) about the hazards of looking for a mate on the open market.  It’s a long list, with blind dates running the gamut from the ones who lie about their age, their weight, and even their gender, to the painfully honest chap who admits that he’s not allowed within 50 feet of a playground.

The tall, weedy guy who nervously enters this lions’ den is Aaron (Levi, the Chuck of the NBC spy series “Chuck”), who hasn’t been on a date since his wife left him and already regrets that he let his best friend fix him up on this blind date.  Aaron is what any woman would recognize as Mr. Nice Guy, who makes a better friend than a lover, so it’s quite an achievement in character-building when Levi carefully draws out the more interesting and yes, sexier side of this sweet, sensitive guy.

Rodriguez (“Smash”) is quite the bombshell as Casey, the neo-punk, height-of-fashion cutie who drinks with both fists and goes for bad boys.  Armed with Rodriguez’s strong voice, solid acting chops, and snazzy Jazz Age costume, Casey seems likely to make short work of awkward Aaron.

But the friction between their personalities produces terrific chemistry, and the smart book guarantees that, while their early exchanges are abrasive, they’re also genuinely witty.  When Casey insults Aaron by calling him a BDV (“blind date virgin”), Aaron politely replies that he’d prefer a name like “A-Train” or “Wolverine.”  The clever lyrics of “First Impressions” take them a long way in getting over the initial discomforts of their blind date.

Of course, no sooner do Aaron and Casey get past the first meeting rituals, than they find themselves stumbling over other social landmines, like “The Awkward Pause” and, inevitably, “The Check!”  Not to mention the familiar critics like friends, exes, and family who materialize at the drop of a hat (or the sound of a musical intro) to offer ill-timed and unwanted advice.

Kristoffer Cusick, as Casey’s gay bff Reggie, has some funny moments in the three “Bailout Songs” that he calls in on his cellphone. Blake Hammond scores some laughs as all the waiters in all the single bars in the world, or at least, in this cold and lonely city.  The other performers also stand up tall doubling and tripling as the voices in our young couple’s fevered brains.

Like the show’s romantic sensibility, the musical idiom is Broadway-lite; but again, not too-too Broadway and not too-too lite — quite suitable, really, for this entertaining, but not overly pushy show.


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