BWW Review: Swipe Right on a Flirty and Fun FIRST DATE at Stage West Theatre
by Zac Thriffiley
By the laws of probability, if you've ever dated more than one person, you have a "worst first date," an evening with more volatile and stomach-churning ingredients than a Long Island Iced Tea at last call. For me, it was the date who cried through the entirety of the third Twilight film then insisted on a three-course meal at McDonald's (a fairly tame date by most standards, I know). My mother showed up for her first date with my father pretending to be someone else in case she didn't like him (she did). A friend once texted me to bail her out of a date when the guy told her he planned on staging an accident to get their meals comped (he didn't).
The stereotypical first date is awkward, scary, and frequently cause to question all of your life choices up to that point. FIRST DATE, the romantic comedy musical closing out Stage West Theatre's 40th season, is also awkward and sometimes nerve-racking. But also sweet, charming, tender, uproariously funny, and a celebration of all the worthwhile risks we take in the search for love. This brilliant gem of a show runs through October 13.
FIRST DATE, the 2013 Broadway musical with book by Austin Winsberg and music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, follows all the tropes of the typical romantic comedy while adding clever twists for the millennial era of social media and Tinder. Playing out in real time over the course of two hours, the awkwardly uptight Aaron and the rebelliously carefree Casey meet for a blind date, making every effort to salvage the night despite their inherent differences. Along the way, other patrons at the restaurant step in to give voice to Aaron and Casey's inner voices, which include toxic exes, overbearing family members, a friendly therapist, and a codependent gay best friend. While there is a clear plot charting Aaron and Casey's feelings for one another as the night progresses, the musical can also be viewed as a series of relatable vignettes that illustrate all the joys and perils of dating, from assessing first impressions to deciding who picks up the check.
Under the direction of Harry Parker, this small ensemble cast of seven feels like a crowd of professionals, bringing each character to life with an energy and sincerity that transports the audience right into the bustling social scene of New York. While nearly all of the musical takes place in a small restaurant, Parker expertly guides his actors in a way that keeps the energy constant and the movement from ever growing stale.
It also helps that the leads are so utterly captivating in their own rights, two charming and remarkably talented individuals who invite viewers into their private lives without ever making them feel like a third wheel. As Aaron, Seth Womack drives his greatest moments with a nervous energy and eagerness to please that comes as much from a deep-seated personal fear as it does from first date jitters. Womack's smooth vocals also run the musical theatre gambit from traditional showtunes to ballads to rock-n-roll breakup songs, his highlights being the wildly triumphant "In Love With You" and the tenderly melancholy "The Things I Never Said." Very infrequently, some of Aaron's most awkward gestures and line deliveries feel too forced, but Womack never fails to draw the laugh when the next beat comes around.
Amber Marie Flores commands the stage from the moment she steps on as Casey, dressed to stun (in costumes by Aaron Patrick Declerk) and with a clever wit that could leave anyone speechless. If Womack's Aaron struggles with what to do or say next, Flores tempers his anxiety with a relaxed coolness that is both inviting and intoxicating. Which is why it is all the more impressive when Flores's devil-may-care attitude begins to crack and break, revealing a vulnerability to Casey that audiences might not have expected. Thankfully, Stage West is a fairly intimate venue, which allows Flores to fill her numbers with the necessary sincere and open emotions that might have been lost if her primary concern had been projection. Flores is never not a delight, but her first act finale "Safer" especially stuns with its bittersweet uncertainty.
As previously mentioned, the remainder of the cast plays a multitude of roles, and it's a shame that their praises can't be sung for another thousand words because they are as much the stars of this show as Womack and Flores are. For the most part, the ensemble remains onstage the entirety of the show, pulling out hats and scarves from hidden areas throughout the restaurant and switching characters in the blink of an eye. Randy Pearlman plays perhaps the most stable of the ensemble roles, usually playing a sweet waiter who is weirdly invested in the success of Aaron and Casey's date. When he isn't singing food-inspired torch songs about love, Pearlman also plays Casey's devoutly Christian "father" (in both senses of the word) as well as several others. Lance Jewett is entertainingly annoying as Aaron's best bro and wingman Gabe and oddly appealing as one of Casey's stoner exes. As the stoner ex, Jewett shares the hilarious duet "Can't Help But Love Me" with Collins Rush, who plays an equally oddly attractive manipulative British artist. Rush also steals the show repeatedly as Reggie, a part so richly entertaining and wildly funny that to say more risks ruining the surprise for audiences less familiar with the show.
As Allison, Aaron's ex, Mary Burchill struts through her scenes with a scintillating coldness and a pleasing voice that could lure almost any man to his demise. Brett Warner is tasked with the widest array of roles, switching from a wildly bereaved Jewish grandmother to Casey's tightly wound older sister to Aaron's mother with sometimes very few breaks in between her characters. Warner is such an expert in her craft, though, that audiences would practically forget that it's one person playing all of these parts if it weren't for the fact that hardly ever leaves the stage.
Furthermore, as an ensemble, the cast literally and figuratively create beautifully harmonies together under the music direction of Alan Shorter, and Shorter's small onstage band of four feels every bit as substantive as a full orchestra. Michelle Harvey's set recreates a simple New York bar/restaurant while providing the cast with the necessary levels play out their interactions with one another. As hinted at earlier, DeClerk's costumes for Aaron and Casey are smartly executed, revealing aspects of their personalities to the audiences while also allowing them to literally and figuratively shed their layers as the musical progresses.
I went into FIRST DATE knowing little to nothing about the show. Before the house lights went down, I was apprehensive, jittery, and wondering if I had time for just one more drink before the night started. Two hours later, I had hearts in my eyes and several songs in my heart. This is one first date you should try out for yourself.