I’ll jump right into it: the world of the modern musical is CRAZY. It’s not easy to compete with “Hamilton,” or “Dear Evan Hansen,” or even “Hadestown.” When “First Date” appeared on the scene in 2013, it had to fight with new shows like “Beautiful” and “Bridges of Madison County” as well as shows that had gained momentum like “Matilda” and “Kinky Boots.” I’m only mentioning this because it wasn’t easy from the get-go for “First Date,” which featured “Chuck” star Zachary Levi and Krysta Rodriguez (whose popularity was sky-high because of Smash). It ran 34 previews and 174 performances. I don’t like to make a review a criticism of the material itself (because cutting or editing is a violation of the license agreement) but this musical struggles, and not even an excellent production at MusicalFare can combat its weaknesses. As I mention script or score flaws below, please don’t say “I guess we shouldn’t see it.” Say instead “let’s see what happens when a company comes together and produces a flawed work” because, after all, humanity is flawed.
. . .an excellent production. . .
On paper, it seems like the perfect show for MusicalFare’s intimate space, and in several ways it is. Chris Cavanagh’s unit set is creative and impressive while practical. The show is licensed in a small cast format, which means that ensemble members Kevin Kennedy, Dudney Joseph Jr., and Dominique Kempf are working overtime. It provides leading vehicles for MusicalFare regulars Michele Marie Roberts and Marc Sacco, whose unbelievable chemistry stemming from years of friendship is put to wonderful use in this production.
As I mentioned, Roberts and Sacco take on these roles with aplomb. They breathe as much truth and life into a hackneyed libretto as is humanly possible. The mostly boring score has highlights and MAN does this cast take advantage of them when they come. “Safer” is a song I’ve heard a couple of times at auditions; it’s a wonderful ballad about why Casey (Roberts) is a self-saboteur. Roberts’ rendition is A++, pitting her outward strength against her inner self-doubt. Sacco, too, sings about a note he found from his mother in “In Love With You.” The rest of the show is riddled with interjections of various stereotypical characters singing novelty songs, and yet something about the performances from Kennedy, Joseph Jr., and Kempf make them ring a little truer. Joseph Jr., in particular, stops the show with “I’d Order Love.” Much of the credit goes to Doug Weyand for directing the reality out of these moments and choreographing them carefully. They work in the little world of this piece, and Weyand doesn’t shy away from their camp.
Here’s the thing about “First Date,” and in particular this production. It doesn’t always have to be “Dear Evan Hansen.” Sometimes, it can be a nice pop musical about two people in a situation many if not all of us have experienced: a first date.
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
“First Date” runs until August 11, 2019 and is presented at MusicalFare Theatre. For more information, click here.