Fort Worth — It’s a classic story, maybe the classic story: nice guy meets tough girl, they clash, sparks fly, but can they overcome their differences and find true love? In the right hands, it’s a story we want to hear over and over again, in endless iterations. In the wrong hands, it’s a snore. Sadly, First Date leans more towards the latter category. And not to be catty, but its roots are really showing. The three-man creative team behind the piece all come from a TV and film background, which certainly contributes to the sense that the audience is catching the pilot for CBS’s freshest sitcom of 2005. Even so, Stage West’s co-production of the musical, in conjunction with Theatre TCU, could challenge even the nastiest critic’s impulse to ding the material. From top to bottom, the cast is giving 110 percent, and the success of the production was entirely due to their enthusiasm and verve.
Nice, nebbish-y Aaron (Seth Womack) is a newly single investment banker wading into the dating pool after his last crushing relationship failure. Enter blind date Casey (Amber Marie Flores), a jaded, artsy veteran of the New York bar scene. The two struggle through the usual soul-deadening small talk, both musically haunted by the specters of exes past, outraged family members full of advice and opinions, and oh-so-helpful best friends providing color commentary on the action. Commitment issues, religious differences, past heartbreaks: on paper, the two don’t seem to stand much of chance. But by show’s end, we’re left to think that maybe these crazy kids can make it work.
Under the direction of TCU Theatre Department Chair Harry Parker, the two leads are excellent separately and scintillate together. Womack plays up Aaron’s neuroses to great comedic effect, but also brings an edge to the character from early on that hints at revelations to come, culminating in his big number raucously telling off ex Allison, “In Love with You.” Flores has, perhaps, the tougher role, or at least the more underwritten one (it’s quite apparent that the piece was created without any female input). Casey’s tough but vulnerable, she has a chip on her shoulder, she likes bad boys who treat her like crap, who will help her tear her walls down, etc. That being said, Flores is incredibly expressive, finding meaning in the character’s silences. And her voice is lovely, shining brightest in Casey’s big solo number, “Safer.”
But it’s the ensemble that’s the icing on this cake. Comprised of two professionals (crowd favorite Randy Pearlman and an excellent Brett Warner) and three Texas Christian University students (Mary Burchill, Lance Jewett, and Collins Rush), they perform a cavalcade of roles, and push the production from good to great. Pearlman’s overinvested, but well-meaning, waiter brings the laughs, and on opening night brought the house down with his big soft-shoe number, “I’d Order Love,” a waiter’s lament for his lost chances at romance. Burchill is pitch-perfect as the toxic Allison, pouting and smoldering malevolently at Aaron’s attempts to move on. Warner gets the chance to show off her ample comedic chops, notably as Aaron’s dearly departed — and deeply disapproving — Grandma Ida in Act I’s goy-phobic, “The Girl for You” and as Casey’s WASP-y sister Lauren. She flexes her dramatic muscles in Act II as Aaron’s career-driven mother, lamenting the things she never said to her son in the unexpectedly moving, “The Things I Never Said.” Rush plays several roles, but stands out as Reggie, Casey’s BFF who grows increasingly miffed when she fails to respond to his “bailout” calls (i.e., excuses for her to bail on her presumed bad date). Your mileage may vary as to whether this character tips over into gay caricature, but if it does, it’s the fault of the script more than the actor. Finally, Jewett brings the bro as Aaron’s best friend Gabe, perpetually disappointed in his boy Aaron’s lack of game.
Musical Director Alan Shorter (on double duty directing and on keyboard) and his three onstage accompanists (Rex Bozarth on bass, Brent Dacus on percussion, and Kim Platko on guitar) keep the music lively and blessedly well-balanced, never overpowering the cast. Shame the songs are, with a few exceptions, blandly poppy and almost wholly forgettable. Choreographer Penny Ayn Maas keeps things loose and lively; the production’s best number on that score is probably the hora-heavy Jewish number in Act I.
Though on the whole, set designer Michelle Harvey has created a credible downtown Manhattan bar scene, there’s an unfortunate whiff of high school with the “skyscraper” flats appearing at the beginning and end of the show. The lighting and sound design (by Amanda West and Mark Howard, respectively) work seamlessly to keep the shifts from reality to fantasy sharp and clear. Aaron Patrick DeClerk’s costume design is fairly straightforward, with some nice flourishes. Of particular note is Casey’s costume, contrasting femininity and edge with her romantic brocaded dress paired with combat boots and scarlet accessories.
Stage West, with Theatre TCU’s assistance, has assembled a murderer’s row of formidable talent for this co-production and, this reviewer’s opinion of the material notwithstanding, it’s hard to argue with the audience’s enjoyment. They loved it; odds are this talented cast can win you over, too.