SALT LAKE CITY — First Date (directed by Jared Larkin and with music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner) opens with four different characters offering one liners about the horrors of dating. For example, one girl says she is a Catholic, and so she doesn’t believe in sex before marriage — but unveils a very long list of sexual acts she is willing to do instead. Another man awkwardly offers that he cannot be within twenty feet of a playground. All of this is said over loud background music before the cast break out into their first number, and the red curtain pulls back to reveal a very lovely set by Spencer Brown.
First Date follows Casey (played by Katelynn Smith) and Aaron (played by Miles Minshew) as they awkwardly navigate their way through a blind date. Casey has emotional barriers that are revealed through her solo number, “Safer” and her sister (played by Meggie Vincent), who confronts her about pushing men away. Aaron’s own dysfunction is shown through his fixation on Allison (played by Chloe Mizantzidi), an ex who had treated him poorly (a situation revealed by childhood friend Gabe, played by Percy Cordero) but who Aaron can’t seem to get over.
The evolution of their relationship is mostly believable. Minshew is so genuine, and all of Aaron’s idiosyncrasies feel palatable because Minshew’s performance makes him a fully fledged character. Aaron’s development is further enabled by the fact that he simply has more numbers, starting with “The Girl For You.” Indeed, Minshew gets to sing three songs before the audience gets to one specifically about Casey. In fact, Casey doesn’t get her own solo until “Safer,” which is halfway through the show. It finally reveals information about her background, as does “That’s Why You Love Me,” a duet sung by her two ex-boyfriends. Most of what we the audience learn about Casey comes from other characters, such as her sister and her therapist. It just doesn’t feel like Austin Winsberg‘s script is as interested in Casey, preferring to devote most of its music and plot to fully fleshing Aaron out and giving his backstory more emotional resonance.
Contrasted to Minshew’s liveliness, Smith’s performance as Casey is even keeled. She has great comedic timing and makes Casey a real person. Casey teases Aaron about how she has a son named Blaze (portrayed with a puppet) and how she is still breastfeeding him, even though Blaze is school aged. All this banter feels realistic because of Smith’s careful performance. Smith is believable as a dysfunctional atheist who prefers sass over genuine connection. Although Smith’s performance does not leap off the stage in the same way that Minshew’s does, she does very well with the material that the script gives her.
There are signs that the show is meant to take place in New York, including a backdrop of the infamous NYC skyline, and one of the three TVs shows central park. Brown’s set is comprised of five different sections that the actors navigate through; there are two elevated portions where Aaron and Casey sit, another section where woman #2 (played by Mizantzidi) and man #2 sit (played by Jacob Harrison). On the floor of the stage, two more actors huddle at a table, man #1 (played by Cordero) and woman #1 (played by Vincent), and finally there is man #3 (played by Darrin Burnett). There is another table that Aaron and Casey eventually make their way to, and of course the center portion of the stage where characters enter and exit the bar/restaurant.
Photo by Amelia Strensrud.All the actors make liberal use of the stage. In one of Aaron’s numbers, “In Love With You,” excitedly moves about the stage as he denounces his ex, Allison. At one point begins to slide across the table on his back as he sings. In each of the “Bailout Songs” performed by Harrison, Reggie dons an aged fur coat and stands on one of the elevated tables as he sings a message offering to bail a woman out of the date. The bartender/server (played by Darrin Burnett) comes out in a sparkling jacket with a black boombox and begins to perform “I’d Order Love,” and all of the background actors get up to slow dance together during the number. Larkin keeps the actors moving in interesting ways and ensures that the show does not feel static, despite taking place on one set.
Another effective directing choice was to use the three TVs to show images that would change with each new song. For example, in “The Girl For You,” there was an image of the Star of David, a question mark and a cross, symbolizing the song’s theme about interpersonal conflicts arising from religious differences. In “The Things I Never Said,” the TV reveals the lines from a letter that Aaron and his mother simultaneously read aloud. The TVs were an excellent way to emphasize different emotional moments in the show, and rewarding for audience members who pay close enough attention.
The costuming (designed by Andrea Benson Davenport) was a pleasant stylized wardrobe that felt a step or two above what people might wear in the real world, and so everyone was pleasant to look at. Each of the costume changes were quite fun, such as in “The Awkward Pause” (sung by the company) the characters wear clothing reminiscent of the 1960s, including round, dark sunglasses; a dark brown vest with flowers on it; and one actor playing a tambourine. And of course, actors change into different outfits when depicting new characters in various numbers such as Harrison’s 1980s-style black wig and leather jacket with a British flag on it during his “That’s Why You Love Me” duet. The lighting (designed by Maddie Keil) makes it easy to follow the story. The bright lights during the musical number contrasted well with the realistic soft lighting of Casey and Aaron’s dialogue during their date.
First Date is a lively show with lots of comedic moments (many of which are from Burnett), and interesting (though not memorable) musical numbers that — for the most part — move the show along nicely and give us insight to the main characters (and some supporting ones). There were certainly times where it felt like the numbers only existed to fill the space (such as “Bailout Song”), but First Date is still make a lovely trip for any musical theatre fan.