In the 21st Century, the prototypical “meet cute” dating story tends to experience its genesis online. Where singles bars, church gatherings and personal ads used to serve as the launch pad for connecting with members of the opposite (or same) sex, today we have OKCupid!, Match.com, eHarmony, Tinder, Grindr and many other niche sites targeting specific demographics (seniors, Jews, etc).
From that perspective, “First Date,” the fabulous romantic musical comedy featuring a book by Austin Winsburg (“Gossip Girl”), with music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, feels right on time. With a nod to several knowing artistic devices (the inner monologue, the breaking of the third wall), the work offers highly entertaining development of a thesis well accepted by most single adults: with so much baggage, differing agendas and misunderstandings, it’s a wonder couples bond at all. Who has the time? And when that connection is miraculously made, we must grapple with the eternal tension between fear and hope before we can move forward.
Per press materials, the plot is as follows: “When blind date newbie Aaron (Charlie Lubeck) is set up with serial-dater Casey (Dana Parker), a casual drink at a busy restaurant turns into a hilarious high-stakes dinner… In a delightful and unexpected twist, Casey and Aaron’s inner critics take on a life of their own when restaurant patrons transform into supportive best friends, manipulative exes and prospective parents who sing and dance them” through the evening.
That description, while accessibly simple, obscures “First Date’s” profound and prescient awareness, a consciousness often lacking in the rom-com genre. For example, what does it say that Casey’s best friend Reggie (Adam Fane) and the Waiter (John Keating) meet, become smitten and run offstage to explore their burgeoning relationship in the span of less than three minutes? Is author Winsburg telling us something about the layers of complication that many hetero couples pile onto a first meeting, versus the streamlined, cut to the chase dynamic of homosexuals who can’t afford the bullshit?
I certainly didn’t expect to wonder. And I’m almost glad I don’t know the answer. Nearly 100 percent of the time, nothing is left open-ended in this genre. There’s not much to take home with you after the show. “First Date” bucks a predictable trend.
Across the board, the performances are winning. The players are gifted with good material, comic timing and serious singing/acting chops. That said, I feel a need to highlight the work of Shea Coffman. In the quadruple role of Aaron’s best friend Gabe, Jewish Chorus, YouTube and Edgy British Guy, he kills it. Absolutely hilarious. I could say more about the singular cast of characters he is asked to inhabit, but don’t think I could do it justice in print. It must be seen.
Other standouts include Cassie Slater, who sings her tail off in vocal deliveries that strike the right alternating notes (literally) between hilarity and poignancy. And I am fairly certain that Fane serves up the most bizarre and delicious rap performance to grace the stage in 2015. I’m calling it now.
With a running time of 90 minutes and no intermission, “First Date” gives the deceptive impression of an easily digestible lark. It can certainly fill that need — a fun, airy night out for groups of friends, couples and lovers of musical comedy. But there’s more — much more. More layers of pop cultural scrutiny and human reflection than one might expect from the show’s marketing campaign. If you’ve got room on your theatergoing calendar, “First Date” is a worthy entry.