This theater publicity image released by The Hartman group shows Kristoffer Cusick, left, Krysta Rodriguez, center, and Bryce Ryness during a performance of the musical “First Date,” at the Longacre Theatre in New York. (AP Photo/The Hartman Group, Joan Marcus)
NEW YORK (AP) — An awkward blind date has the potential for great comedy — as long as it’s not happening to you. In an alternate world, such a date might unfold amid a series of snappy musical numbers with irreverent lyrics. As the clumsy encounter unfolded, maybe the couple’s inner baggage would even surround them with song and dance.
That’s the entertaining idea behind the sassy new musical comedy, “First Date.” The overall tone is satiric, but there’s a sneakily persistent undercurrent of optimism in the fun, fast-paced production that opened Thursday night at the Longacre Theatre.
Handsome Zachary Levi (of TV’s “Chuck”) dons dorky glasses as nervous, nerdy, blind-date newbie Aaron. Krysta Rodriguez (“The Addams Family” and TV’s “Smash”) is world-weary and edgy as hip, jaded Casey, a sophisticated veteran of the dating wars.
After a cynical opening number about how difficult it is to find “The One,” which includes daters’ laments like, “Where the hell’s the fairy tale!,” the duo meet up in a restaurant. He’s earnest and bumbling; she’s suspicious and off-putting, giving him dating tips and judging his every move.
Their tentative conversation is soon interrupted with well-choreographed antics, performed by an ensemble of five energetic actors in multiple roles, as the seemingly mismatched couple’s inner thoughts are enacted around them. A bevy of imaginary characters muddy the already-choppy waters, including disapproving relatives and inappropriate exes.
The book by “Gossip Girl” writer Austin Winsberg provides the couple with plenty of flippant repartee. A madcap mashup of musical styles and lyrics blazing with one-liners are provided by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner. Director Bill Berry keeps a steady pace amid the dynamic musical staging by Josh Rhodes.
Making his Broadway debut, Levi has a strong leading-man presence, smooth in his dance moves while handling Aaron’s nervous gaffes with comedic flair. Aaron’s baggage includes a womanizing best friend, Gabe (a sly, hipsterish Bryce Ryness), and a selfish, unstable ex-girlfriend, Allison (played with sultry aloofness by Kate Loprest). Levi knocks it out of the park with his mesmerizing solo, “In Love With You,” a get-it-off-your-chest, often misogynistic number bursting with invective against Allison.
Rodriguez is polished and cool, gradually showing underlying vulnerability as Casey unbends a little. Casey interacts in her head with her still-alluring, bad-boy ex-boyfriends and her know-it-all big sister Lauren (Sara Chase), among others. Performing “Safer,” Casey’s lovely lament wondering why she can’t find the right guy, Rodriguez delivers with emotion and class.
One of the funnier bits is a fevered performance by Kristoffer Cusick as Casey’s best friend Reggie. He calls her several times to offer variations of “The Bailout Song,” so she can get out of the date if necessary with an excuse. Blake Hammond is quite entertaining in a variety of roles, primarily as a waiter who encourages the daters toward success.
While many of the songs are harmlessly humorous, a religion-themed number, “The Girl For You,” veers toward simplistically offensive, as Jewish stereotypes clash with Roman Catholic ones (Aaron’s Jewish, Casey is not). Aaron brings up the subject of a treasured letter from his deceased mother (played by Chase) which seems oddly downbeat for a date, but leads into a poignant duet between Chase and Levi about a mother’s love and regrets, called “The Things I Never Said.”
“Something That Will Last” is Casey and Aaron’s final duet, about the uncertainties of falling in love. Never mind love, will they even make it to a second date? The point is that after just 90 minutes with this mismatched couple and their comical parade of demanding advisers, we still care how it turns out.