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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