PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Aug. 2-9: First Date Opens on Broadway, Harbor Docks at 59E59 and Pal Joey Makes a Friend at Arkansas Rep

By Robert Simonson
August 9, 2013

First Date experienced its first date with the New York critics Aug. 8 and the evening was a rocky one.



The new work, which received a Seattle premiere co-produced by A.C.T. and the 5th Avenue Theatre, features a book by Austin Winsberg, with music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner. Starring as the set-up couple are Krysta Rodriguez, as chic "serial-dater" Casey, and Zachary Levi, as uptight Aaron. Their date unfolds in real time, with various detours into the character's pasts, via Google background checks, fake emergency phone calls, supportive best friends, manipulative exes and protective parents. (Ah, the modern dating scene!)

According to the creators, the musical was written when they followed the common dictum "Write what you know." Apparently, all three men have been on their share of bad first dates. So, call the show autobiographical in triplicate.

"Truly, the scariest thing about this show," said Weiner, "is probably [that] everything is taken from our own lives or our friends' lives in some way. We have friends who will see this show — and maybe they won't be friends with us afterwards!"

The New York Times found the proceedings all too crushingly recognizable. "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," the paper wrote. "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." Other reviews also pointed out the show's sitcom-like qualities.

The AP, however, apparently saw a different show. "The book by 'Gossip Girl' writer Austin Winsberg provides the couple with plenty of flippant repartee," went the review. "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...Rodriguez is polished and cool, gradually showing underlying vulnerability as Casey unbends a little."

Variety, meanwhile, hedged its bets like crazy: "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."

And Time Out New York praised the show by lowering the critical bar, writing, "If ever there were the platonic ideal of a Broadway summer engagement, this is it: no serious competition, low expectations, emerging talent."

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Randy Harrison and Paul Anthony Stewart
photo by Carol Rosegg

In the week's major Off-Broadway opening, Randy Harrison, Erin Cummings, Paul Anthony Stewart and Alexis Molnar opened in Primary Stages' Off-Broadway premiere of Chad Beguelin's Harbor, which officially opened Aug. 6 after previews that began July 23 at 59E59 Theaters.

Harbor, which premiered at the Westport Country Playhouse last August, is staged by Westport artistic director Mark Lamos. It will continue through Sept. 8. Beguelin is best known for his musical work; he was the lyricist of Elf and The Wedding Singer.

The play tells of what happens when 15-year-old Lottie and her ne'er-do-well mother Donna drop in unannounced on the beautiful Sag Harbor home of Donna's brother and his new husband.

Reviews were mixed. "Despite its ultimately serious concerns," wrote Time Out New York, "most of the play unfolds at a B-sitcom level, salted with familiar gays-have-fussy-taste jokes and crassly sardonic one-liners."

"The nagging issue is that the dialogue seldom sounds like characters talking," wrote the Daily News, "but like a writer's words spilling out of their mouths." The New York Post was more encouraging, saying, "When Harbor stops trying to be Noel Coward in the Hamptons, it offers a flawed but interesting look at what it means to make tough decisions. By the end, the show has almost grown up, too."

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A couple weeks ago, when I reported on the premiere of Because of Winn Dixie, the new musical by Duncan Sheik and Nell Benjamin that will premiere in December, I thought that would be the last time I would mention Arkansas Repertory Theatre in this column.

Not so.

Orson Welles
Someone down there in the Ozarks is booking shows that make headlines. The latest news from the suddenly newsworthy ART is a re-conceived version of the Rodgers and Hart quasi-classic Pal Joey, due to begin performances Sept. 4.

Pal Joey has always been a troubled child of the famed composing duo, loved for its timeless score, but weighed down by an unlikeable protagonist. The John O'Hara libretto is routinely tinkered with every few years. Much like how the women in the musical feel toward Joey, directors and writers feel almost motherly toward the misguided show, always sure they're the one that can save the poor boy from himself.

This particular staging, which is directed by Peter Schneider, has a new book by Patrick Pacheco, who is known in theatre circles for his work as a journalist. Pacheco has addressed the story's problems by altering the race of some of the characters. Playboy-on-the-make Joey is now African-American. Within Joey's love triangle, Vera is white, and Linda is black. Additionally, the creators have introducing a white male pianist  who also falls in love with Joey.

In case those character twists don't grip you, the production also gooses the score by adding a few other songs from the Rodgers and Hart catalog, including "The Lady Is a Tramp," "Sing for Your Supper" and "Glad to Be Unhappy."

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A early bit of Broadway history, long thought lost, was found this week in a warehouse in the Italian Pordenone.

The item is a short film created by Orson Welles — his first. It was meant to be shown with Too Much Johnson, a revival of an 1894 stage farce that the 23-year-old Welles intended to bring to Broadway for the 1938 season of his Mercury Theater.

Welles never finished editing the footage he shot — about 25,000 feet, or nearly four hours worth — and when the play, written by the celebrated actor William Gillette as a vehicle for himself, folded out of town, after a disastrous preview in Stony Creek, CT, Welles abandoned the project. The film had presumably been lost in a fire that destroyed Welles' villa in Spain. 

After the footage was discovered, it was turned over to the George Eastman House in Rochester. The process of stabilizing the film and transferring it to modern safety stock is proceeding with support from the National Film Preservation Foundation.