First Date has Biting Humor, Tenderness, Quirk and a Strong Cast

It was Jerry Seinfeld who said, “Let’s face it: A date is a job interview that lasts all night. The only difference is: Not many job interviews is there a chance you’ll end up naked at the end of it.” A musical comedy about a first date also has an element of chance to it, although thankfully not one that involves disrobing. Rather, is it predictably going to introduce us to a mismatched stereotypical couple who spar and face awkward moments in an effort to make us laugh, when all along we know that the swoon of their coming together at the end is our payoff? Or are we going to be intelligently exposed to the archness in trying to find love, the less than altruistic motives that are a necessary part of dating and the inner insecure, honest voices that drive us forward and hold us back in matters of the heart? The answer is all of the above when it comes to Austin Winsberg’s (book) and Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner’s (music and lyrics) First Date, an obvious trajectory of a show that saves itself and us by injecting sass, quirk and insight into a thoroughly enjoyable 100 minutes onstage.

It’s set entirely in a chic but not too chic New York bar/restaurant (authentically designed by Ryan McGettigan), and we watch as Aaron (A.J. Shively) and Casey (Jessica Janes) go on their first date. Or blind date, to be more accurate, set up by Aaron’s workmate, who happens to be Casey’s brother-in-law. Casey is an artsy/indie, bad-boy junkie, serial blind dater with walls up, attitude out and a sharp tongue that of course all belies her inner sensitivity. Aaron, bwy groaningly shameless contrast, is a nervous, glasses-wearing, nice-guy investment banker with a jilted-at-the-altar broken heart, pathetically little dating experience and the moves of a marshmallow.

We get it. They are the worst possible match for each other. Cue the sitcom/Hollywood chick-flick playbook as we numb out for the ride we know will eventually reveal just how right they are for each other. With a setup like this, it’s hard not to assume the worst. But there’s a glimpse that First Date isn’t going to be content to sit mired in its own hackneyed existence the moment the second musical number kicks in. Sung by the pair as an inner monologue, “First Impression” lets us honestly into Casey and Aaron’s heads as they recount what they think of each other (not much) and what they actually hope the other person may be like (a lot). It’s the start of a series of musical disruptions, either by the couple themselves to reflect or more often by the other five performers onstage, who transform from restaurant patrons into the imaginary voices of Aaron and Casey’s friends and family giving them advice, chastising them and trying to make sure they don’t screw things up.

But make no mistake, while Zachary and Weiner’s lyrics often hit some uncomfortable nails on the head for the couple (and by extension everyone who has ever struggled finding/getting over/not being ready for love), this is a musical comedy and so laugh we must. And thankfully, laugh we do consistently throughout the show thanks to mostly peppy numbers that aren’t afraid to take the piss out of the dating process and use ribald language to elevate First Date out of safe-ville. “Bailout Song,” performed with increasing hysteria three times during the show to great comedic effect (by Mark Ivy), has Casey’s gay friend Reggie desperately trying to extricate her from what he assumes is another bad blind date. When, despite the couple’s ability at playing Jewish geography with the people they know in common, Casey tells Aaron that she is in fact an atheist Christian, “The Girl for You” wonderfully brings Aaron’s dead grandma (Brooke Wilson) to the action to warn him in violent terms that a Semitic girl is the only acceptable match.

Other numbers, such as “The World Wide Web Is Forever” (as the two Google each other to some embarrassing results), “The Awkward Pause” (which cleverly illustrates that uncomfortable time in a date when conversation lulls) and “That’s Why You Love Me” (an unflinching look at Casey’s bad-boy past), keep us nodding in ironic agreement and giggling throughout most of the show. By the time the couple’s date turns decidedly south, we are more than primed to delight at the depiction of the dreaded “friend zone,” which gets a drill-sergeant inner-monologue delivery of “NO GROPING….NO ORAL PLEASURE…NO PEN…E…TRATION!”

But even with all the biting humor, First Date has a tenderness and warmth to it thanks to the sensitive direction of Marley Wisnoski, who never forgets that this is a story of love after all. We may laugh at and with our couple (and even get teary with them in one instance), but Wisnoski has great success at elevating Casey and Aaron past the stereotypical, one-dimensional characters that a familiar story like this can result in. Additionally, Wisnoski does a terrific job of bringing her other five cast members in and out of the action in a continual loop of varied and visually engaging scenes assisted by Dana Lewis’s expressive choreography.

But most enjoyable is watching a cast uniformly up to the challenge. Adam Gibbs, Mark Ivy and Kathryn Porterfield each wonderfully take on three or more inner-voice characters, ranging from Aaron’s smarmy best friend Gabe, his bitchy ex-fiancée Allison and the lowlifes who make up Casey’s past boyfriend pool. Special mention must go to Brooke Wilson (Casey’s sister Lauren, among others) for her ability to play both funny and serious without skipping a beat and to Dylan Goodwin (the Waiter, among others) for exceptionally delivering one of the two showstopping numbers of the production.

As Casey, Jessica James strikes the right balance between tough and vulnerable, and while her narrative arc may be B level, she never lets that stop her from injecting as much realism and nuance into her character as possible. We care what happens to her and why it’s happening, and with her clear, beautiful voice, we’re often happy to just sit back and listen.

It’s harder at first to warm to A.J. Shively as the goofy, nervous, nerdy and initially more thinly drawn Aaron. But with time, Shively rises above the limitations of his role and delivers a character that has substance under his sweetness, allowing us to root enthusiastically for his potential happy ending. Vocally Shively does a fine job, but then blows us out of our seats in the musical’s other showstopper, which will have anyone who has ever been wronged in love fist-pumping with glee.

Modern musicals about love between a couple, whether they’re finding it or having it fall apart, seem to be en vogue over the past several years. The Last Five Years (2001) (now a movie) examines a couple’s five-year relationship. I Love You Because (2006) shows us how opposites attract and fall for each other. And 2011’s stage adaptation of Once gave us a glimpse of delicate budding love. Audiences seem to have no end to their desire for these stories. No big surprise given our navel-gazing natures and the need to understand and tap into connection in an increasingly technology-connected yet lonely world.

First Date (2012) may give us the step before love, but it sits firmly with these other players in the couple-love genre type of musical. As such, it suffers from many of the pitfalls these kinds of shows face — overly familiar story arcs, unsurprising characters and nowhere to go but where we already expect. But in the end, thanks to a terrific production that pushes the genre as best it can, performers who rise above the page and some clever complexities built into the thing itself, First Date manages to be the fabled frog we kiss and get a prince out of. Warts and all.

First Date
Through June 21. The Hobby Center for Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-558-8887,
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman