First show out of the chute for the 2013-14 Broadway season is First Date, an amiable musical-comedy about those excruciating opening moments in which a relationship is either born or stillborn. It lifted off Aug. 8 at the Longacre Theatre.
We've all had 'em, of course (the maladjusted and unmalleable among us more than the others), and we all strongly suspect they're nothing to sing and dance about. A bell, perhaps, at best — one that would toll at every misstep or misspeak and send the conversation back to a safety zone, as in David Ives' playful playlet, Sure Thing.
Alas, First Date does not come with such helpful, social trainer-wheels. Instead, it barrels through the awful awkwardness of it all like a rhino in heat. It's the work — the reflections — of three wiseacres from the comfortable bench of thirtysomethings: Alan Zachary, 39, and Michael Weiner, 38, who did the songs, and Austin Winsberg, 36, who did the book.
"Everything in the show happened either to us or some of our very good friends," declares the latter with no discernable pride or joy.
Their hapless Everyman sacrifice is Aaron ( Zachary Levi), tiptoeing back into the marketplace after a crash-and-burn with Allison (Kate Loprest). Now, it's Casey ( Krysta Rodriguez) at bat, and for most of the evening it's three balls and two strikes. They hook up at a tiny NYC nightspot populated by two other couples who can, at a moment's notice, turn into pivotal people from the pasts of the leading man and lady. A gay waiter (Blake Hammond) referees the proceedings with admirable neutrality. Gotham lent a certain grandeur to the opening night party after the 90 minutes or slightly less it took for First Date to run its course (17 songs and a lotta chuckles).
At this point in time, it's not saying that much to say Levi gives the best performance of the season, but it certainly is a star turn that landed solidly with the first-nighters. True, his character is the point of entry for the audience, but he gets his laughs in a very individualized, dangerously unpredictable fashion, constantly rummaging through what seems a bottomless pit of surefire, audience-winning tics and tricks.
"Aaron's a good man with a good heart," says Levi. "He's been wounded in life and is just trying to make it. He has a specific character arc and grows a pair at the end. There's so much that's funny in the show, so much heart, that people are walking away fulfilled. What I get more than anything is that people walk away saying, 'That was time and money well-spent.' That's all you can hope for as an entertainer."
It's a performance that director Bill Berry claims he had no problem extracting from Levi. "You know how you direct him? You sit back, you let him do what he's going to do, you talk to him, you say, 'Hey, what about this or that?' You have someone who is so highly skilled, all you have to do is give little suggestions and away he goes."
Also making his job easier is the script. "Austin, Michael and Alan put together such a tight script that we just looked at it and said, 'How can we expand this and make it more theatrical and bring it to life in a way that the audience will have a good time?"
Berry was one of the first aboard First Date. "I've been with this from the beginning. We started in Seattle. We did a workshop about two and a half years ago, then we did a production in Seattle, and then we began the process that brought us here."
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Randy Adams, whose Junkyard Dog Productions is lead producer of the show, entered the picture about the same time. "We had worked with the songwriters, Alan and Michael, on a couple of other projects, helping them move along things, and they invited us to the very, very first reading of this, and we fell in love with it. We picked it up and have been working with them ever since. They've done a great job. It's fun, it's cute, it's contemporary — it's just different, and that's what matters." And he's very aware of the comedy's major asset. "Zachary is such a natural. It's amazing. He has not been on stage like this since high school. He's done vocal work. He did that in 'Tangled,' but it's been such a long time since he has been on stage."
Part of the reason Levi's performance is so hilarious — an important part — is Rodriguez, his straightman — er, straightwoman that he bounces his laughs off.
"Zachary's the best," she insists. "Not only is he funny and charming, he's a wonderful guy — and a hard worker. That's what I believe in. I'm all about work.
"We both worked on seeming spontaneous. People think that maybe we're, cracking up at each other — and sometimes we are — but sometimes that just what we're doing. When we had our first matinee, I said, 'All right. It might be a little quiet.' And he's like, 'It doesn't matter. I'm going out there full-tilt.' He's 100% all the time."
Rodriguez's occasionally strident Casey also contributes to the fun by making the first date seem scary. "I love Casey because she doesn't hold back — she's a sharpshooter," admits the actress, who has appeared in A Chorus Line, Spring Awakening, In the Heights and The Addams Family. "I don't like to say everything that's on my mind. She says everything that's on her mind, and she says it sharper and funnier than I ever could. I admire that. I also admire, in some ways, she's a little guarded. I'm more open. I'll take on people, I'll love people — y'know, keep myself open a lot longer than she would. I like that she has a tough screening process. I admire that." Loprest likes the fact that she gets to play the other woman on two different levels. "You don't know she's the bad ex at first, so I play it like she's wonderful and amazing. I think that's great writing because you have already come to like her."
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She doesn't get a word in edgewise in her favorite scene — "the one at the end of the show where Zach tells me to F-Off. What's amazing is the bigger the response, the better job I've done with the audience hating me. It's a fun acting moment for me." Berry's attentive direction came in for some praise from her. "Bill is an expert at those tiny, little, finite details. He let us do and feel, and he would kinda manage — not even micromanage. He'd say, 'Take an extra beat' or 'What if you said it this way?' or 'Speed it up,' whatever it is. It was that easy. You'd say, 'Bill, I feel I'm not getting the best out of this line,' he'll try to make it better. He's also the nicest note-giver ever. It's never 'What in the hell are you doing?' They're 'Have you tried next time to possibly please...' He's a pro about that, about not making you feel small."
Hammond couldn't be happier that somebody threw a showstopper ("I'd Order Love") his way. "So often the character actor gets to sing a number that's not always the best, and this one has a great feel to it and that style. And it actually facilitates their love. The waiter's an outsider, watching the two get together. He doesn't really have anything at stake, but he enjoys watching them meet and fall in love."
No, Hammond has never been served by a waiter like the one he plays here — "and I've never had to be a waiter before, but I said to my mother today, 'I'm learning what it's actually like for real now because I literally must wait on tables on stage.'"
Among the two-by-twos who survived a first date: Derrick Baskin of Memphis and De'Adre Aziza of Passing Strange; Memphis' Kevin Massey and Newsies' Kara Lindsay; In the Heights duo Eliseo Roman and Mandy Gonzalez; TV's "Family Guy" Seth Green and wife Clare Grant; funny lady Julie Halston (about to break in her new act, Classical Julie, at Birdland Aug. 12 and 19) with her Sirius hubby, Ralph Howard; choreographer Sergio Trujillo and actor Jack Noseworthy; silver-suited Max von Essen and Elizabeth Stanley of Cry-Baby; newlyweds Meghan Woollard and Newsies' Corey Cott; Rock of Ages' Ashley Spencer and hubby Jeremy Jordan, formerly of Newsies, and Sarah Stiles and Howie Michael Smith, both formerly of Avenue Q.
Also in attendance were Orfeh; the Tony winners for The Life ( Chuck Cooper) and The Book of Mormon ( Nikki M. James); Aladdin director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw; the last, late Jekyll & Hyde ( Constantine Maroulis); Avenue Q Tony nominee Stephanie D'Abruzzo; Memphis Tony nominee Montego Glover; producer-actress Jana Robbins; producer-comedienne Jamie deRoy; producer-actress Tamara Tunie; Yvette Nicole Brown from TV's "Community"; Carly Rose Sonenclar; two-time Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz, the forthcoming Big Fish; Emma Kenney of TV's "Shameless" and Christina Sajous of Spider-Man. "Zachary, Zachary. Zachary, Zachary." That was the post-show exchange when Zachary Quinto rushed forth to congratulate Zachary Levi on his performance. In less than six weeks, the former will be joining the latter on Broadway via the revival of The Glass Menagerie. Suffice to say, after decades in mothballs, it's the year of Zacharys on Broadway. Not only is there another one in First Date, more are on their way — namely, Zachary Unger in Big Fish and Zach Braff in Bullets Over Broadway. Only Unger has been on Broadway before (once before, fleetingly, in Chaplin).