Imagine J Lo and Matthew Broderick on a blind date. She: sexy, sassy, street smart. He: suited up, buttoned-down, street stupid. They agree to meet at a neighborhood bar. He arrives straight from work, nerdy and nervous (it’s his first blind date ever). She breezes in, long hair flowing, slinky black dress slipping off her shoulder.
This is the opening scene of First Date, a raunchy, raucous new musical co-produced by the Fifth Avenue Theatre and ACT. Of course, it’s not really J Lo and Matthew but Casey (Kelly Karbacz) and Aaron (Eric Ankrim), a mismatched couple if ever there was one. Aaron is Jewish, innocent and “in finance.” Casey is a lapsed Catholic, tough and works at an art gallery. Aaron has recently exited a disastrous long-term relationship, Casey goes from one bad boy to another.
Not surprisingly the date starts off badly. He greets her tentatively with a hug; she recoils. He then shakes her hand and pretends to get an electric shock, she thinks he’s weird. From this point on, the evening is a hilarious send-up of modern dating rituals with a constantly ringing cell phone (hers), pre-date googling (him of her), and discussions in their heads with family (him), therapist (her) and friends (both).
First Date is such an engaging rom-com, interspersed with uproarious musical numbers, that we don’t have time to stop for a minute to think about where this date is going. If we did we’d know it winds up with a happy ending, but the roller coaster ride to the conclusion is so much fun it doesn’t matter if the blind date is the beginning of a great relationship or another disappointing bump on the road to true love.
The show wouldn’t work without a charismatic Casey and Aaron but no worries here. Karbacz and Ankrim are pitch perfect as the polar opposite would-be lovers. Both light up the stage, have great voices, and can move effortlessly from comedy to drama. There are a few serious moments when Casey and Ankrim reveal their open wounds; in Karbacz’ and Ankrim’s deft hands, these interludes blend seamlessly with the lighter tone of the rest of the production.
Ankrim is such a chameleon it’s hard to believe he’s the same actor who just played the swaggering Curly in the Fifth Avenue’s recent Oklahoma! Karbacz, the only non-Seattleite in the cast, has a string of Broadway, off-Broadway, and film credits to her name; born and raised in New York City, she brings a realistic big city swagger to her role.
Although Karbacz and Ankrim are clearly the main characters they are supported by a stellar cast that joins them on their date as the voices inside their heads. Billie Wildrick is outrageously funny as Aaron’s deceased grandmother, complaining from the grave that he’ll break her heart if he marries a non-Jew. Spewing Yiddish expressions in the number “The Girl for You,” Wildrick has the accent and attitude of a Jewish bubbe down pat. She’s equally delightful as Casey’s best friend Lauren, constantly reminding Casey of her checkered romantic history.
Benjamin Harris as Casey’s gay BFF is over the top and believable at the same time as he keeps offering Casey bailout phone calls and consistently goes to voice mail. His three “Bailout Songs” are among the funniest in the show and that’s saying a lot in a production chock full of riotous musical numbers. Richard Gray, Vicki Noon, and Brandon O’Neill round out the troupe and each brings the comedy to life in a distinctive way. As Aaron’s voice-in-his-head friend, O’Neill carries off some of the best lines in the play without cracking a smile. “If you talk about the ex, you can forget about the sex,” he warns, and later moans, “What’s the point of imagining me if you’re not going to listen to a word I say?”
Writer Austin Winsberg and composer-lyricists Michael Weiner and Alan Zachary manage to avoid clichés and bring a welcome freshness to what could have been a recycled diversion. Although Weiner and Zachary’s score doesn’t contain any numbers you’re likely to walk out humming, the songs are melodic and easy on the ears. Bill Berry’s direction is masterful, using ACT’s small Falls Theatre stage to great effect. Even when all seven actors are on stage, scenes never feel crowded and Josh Prince’s staging of the musical numbers provides the necessary sweep that they deserve. Matthew Smucker’s set instantly conveys a hip downtown setting, complete with trendy blackboard menu, and Alex Berry’s sparkling lighting directs our attention to wherever the main action is happening.
First Date is the second collaboration for the Fifth Avenue Theatre and ACT. Based on this latest outing plus the success of last year’s sparkling Vanities, the stars seem aligned for a successful, continuing relationship between the two organizations. That’s a bonanza for local audiences and an inspired model for how to expand the theater-going public.