“First Date,” a romantic musical comedy about the horrors, humiliations and occasional happy surprises of blind dates, is cute (but not too cute) and sweet (but not too sweet). So, indications are that this appealing show will do well (but not too well) on Gotham’s Main Stem, despite having come out of nowhere and been assembled by no one you’ve heard of. Creative team of Austin Winsberg (book) and collaborators Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner (music and lyrics) should thank their lucky stars for Krysta Rodriguez and Zachary Levi, who are seriously charming as mismatched blind daters destined to become lovers.
Ah, the joys of the modest musical, a rare commodity on Broadway these days but an ideal tenant for the intimately scaled and lovingly restored Longacre Theater. Helmer Bill Berry, producing director of the 5th Avenue Theater in Seattle where the show originated, makes judicious use of his resources. David Gallo’s unit set adapts to the various restaurants, wine bars, and cafes where all the dating and mating takes place, enhanced by the witty background projections of a big, bad, sexy city. The design is nice and tight, a perfect fit for the stage, which Mike Baldassari has drolly lighted in those deeper shades of midnight-blue-to-black (with splashes of red) that are universal signifiers of moody music, hard liquor and sex.
The bar is packed with dating couples (for obvious budgetary reasons, scaled down to two boy-girl pairs, joined by a waiter) singing their hearts out in a rousing opening number (“The One”) about the hazards of looking for a mate on the open market. It’s a long list, with blind dates running the gamut from the ones who lie about their age, their weight, and even their gender, to the painfully honest chap who admits that he’s not allowed within 50 feet of a playground.
The tall, weedy guy who nervously enters this lions’ den is Aaron (Levi, the Chuck of the NBC spy series “Chuck”), who hasn’t been on a date since his wife left him and already regrets that he let his best friend fix him up on this blind date. Aaron is what any woman would recognize as Mr. Nice Guy, who makes a better friend than a lover, so it’s quite an achievement in character-building when Levi carefully draws out the more interesting and yes, sexier side of this sweet, sensitive guy.
Rodriguez (“Smash”) is quite the bombshell as Casey, the neo-punk, height-of-fashion cutie who drinks with both fists and goes for bad boys. Armed with Rodriguez’s strong voice, solid acting chops, and snazzy Jazz Age costume, Casey seems likely to make short work of awkward Aaron.
But the friction between their personalities produces terrific chemistry, and the smart book guarantees that, while their early exchanges are abrasive, they’re also genuinely witty. When Casey insults Aaron by calling him a BDV (“blind date virgin”), Aaron politely replies that he’d prefer a name like “A-Train” or “Wolverine.” The clever lyrics of “First Impressions” take them a long way in getting over the initial discomforts of their blind date.
Of course, no sooner do Aaron and Casey get past the first meeting rituals, than they find themselves stumbling over other social landmines, like “The Awkward Pause” and, inevitably, “The Check!” Not to mention the familiar critics like friends, exes, and family who materialize at the drop of a hat (or the sound of a musical intro) to offer ill-timed and unwanted advice.
Kristoffer Cusick, as Casey’s gay bff Reggie, has some funny moments in the three “Bailout Songs” that he calls in on his cellphone. Blake Hammond scores some laughs as all the waiters in all the single bars in the world, or at least, in this cold and lonely city. The other performers also stand up tall doubling and tripling as the voices in our young couple’s fevered brains.
Like the show’s romantic sensibility, the musical idiom is Broadway-lite; but again, not too-too Broadway and not too-too lite — quite suitable, really, for this entertaining, but not overly pushy show.