SALT LAKE CITY — I was lucky enough to get tickets for my husband and me to go to The Grand Theatre’s production of First Date on opening night, which happened to be on Valentine’s Day. This hysterical comedy reminded me of all the reasons I would never want to go on another first date myself and provided a night full of entertainment as I watched the main characters struggle through their night.
I’ve been to The Grand Theatre before, but I was surprised as soon as I walked through the doors. The director, Jamie Rocha Allan, and scenic designer, Cara Pomeroy, completely redefined the large proscenium setting by moving the audience directly to the front and level to the stage floor: part of what they called the “Backstage Series.” The large space suddenly became like a black-box production where the audience was right up next to the actors inside the restaurant. I love this kind of tight and intimate theatre where you can see every emotion that passes through the characters.
The play follows Aaron (Michael Scott Johnson) and Casey (Aalliyah Ann Jenks) as they meet up for drinks on a blind date. They immediately size each other up with a quick first impression of each other. Aaron is a successful businessman on Wall Street, throwing around terms like “investment banking,” “corporate finance,” and “mergers and acquisitions” in his three-piece suit. He comes across as stable and boring to Casey as soon as she sees him across the room putting eye drops in for his allergies right before she walks over to meet him. Aaron also quickly sizes Casey up as artsy and a little dangerous, everything he isn’t, as she comes in wearing her leather jacket and ankle boots. The costume design by Shannon McCullock immediately told the audience exactly who these two are.
Surrounding these two main characters is a three-person chorus of actors that constantly shifts roles as the situations demands. These characters are just listed as Woman, played by Michelle Lynn Thompson, Man 1, played by Dayne Cade, and Man 2, played by B.J. Whimpey. All three of these actors had to fill a myriad of roles revolving around the primary couple. They take a small comment between the characters and show a whole vignette of what is happening in their minds and do so with great success.
After first impressions are made, Casey gets a “bailout” phone call from her flamboyantly gay bestie Reggie. Reggie (played by Cade) is written as a walking stereotype. The first bailout song is very funny and well performed, but the gag does get a little old by the time Reggie calls a third time over the course of the evening and works himself up to hysterics before going out in search of Casey and eventually stumbling onto his own first date.
Like Reggie, most of the supporting characters are blatant stereotypes; I don’t refer to the acting, which was superb, but the writing. The book, written by Austin Winsberg, needs something to happen, so a funny stereotype is inserted to achieve these ends. It provides cheap laughs, but there are certainly a lot of them. Most of these obvious stereotypes are towards the beginning of the play.
After Casey ignores her bailout call from Reggie, she plays a game of “Jewish geography” with Aaron, who is then shocked to find out that she isn’t Jewish. This sends Aaron reeling into a fantasy where his very stereotypical Jewish grandmother (Thompson) tells him he can’t marry Casey (“Oy, oy oy!”) because she isn’t of their faith (“A goy, goy, goy!”). Then, joining Aaron’s fantasy is what he imagines Casey’s “Father” (Whimpey) is like. Finally joining in is their future son (Cade) who raps about how messed up he is because he was raised by parents of different faiths. The song ends in a dramatic quodlibet with all three singing about how Casey is certainly not the girl for Aaron. I was enthralled with the vocal power of the three actors combining the soprano, tenor, and rapping to great result. The quick stereotypes are obvious, but very effective and side-splittingly funny.
As the characters continue to blunder through the necessary small talk required, they stumble through other first date faux pas. The characters suffer through, “The Awkward Pause,” a mirthful Simon and Garfunkel-esque song detailing how painful that lull feels. Other obstacles arise, such as should the girl order a salad or the nice greasy burger she desires? Will the guy seem like a wuss if he would rather have a salad than a manly slab of meat? Is it ok to talk about your exes? Who pays for the check?!
All this typical first date drama is dealt with in what is obviously from an all-male author perspective, and some of the later songs are touchingly beautiful. The characters open up to each other and share vulnerable moments that make them charming and intriguing to each other and the audience. Jenks’s rendition of, “Safer,” gave me chills as she explains to Aaron why she puts up walls and sabotages all relationships that might have potential. Aaron also opens up about losing his mother in tenth grade. In a duet between Johnson and Thompson, I found myself having to wipe a tear away. It might be because I’m a mother now, but I think anyone would find these final words about finding “something that will last” poignant.
This play is an unabashed romantic comedy musical first performed in 2012. With no intermission, the pace is as upbeat as many of the numbers (lyrics and music written by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner). All the actors have phenomenal voices which blend together beautifully and fill the space completely. Music director Michael G. Leavitt did a wonderful job making sure the actors’ voices were balanced with each other and with the music playing beneath them.
I would only add one caveat to anyone looking for a night full of laughs: The Grand Theatre lists on its website that it would rate this play as “PG-13” for strong language. I argue that it would be more appropriately labeled “Rated R.” There are at least eight uses of the F-word, other curses besides, and sexual references throughout. I wouldn’t want to deter audiences from seeing a delightful show, but patrons should simply beware that it is for mature audiences. The characters are in their 30’s in New York and live in a culture and have experiences that are reflected in some of the content. Granted, some of that mature content is exactly why you might end up laughing so hard you snort – something that can happen to anyone at an uproarious play like this. And while I am immensely grateful to not have the need to go on another first date ever again, I loved watching Casey and Aaron muddle through their own first date in their attempt to find “something that will last.”