First impressions, no matter how dismal, do indeed merit a second glance when boy meets girl in First Date, the smart, funny Broadway musical romcom now getting an absolutely Grade-A Southern California Premiere at the La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts.
An A is not, however, the grade that blind-daters Aaron (Marc Ginsburg) and Casey (Erica Lustig) would give each other at first glance—or even at second or third—as they declare in “First Impressions,” just one of a dozen or so Alan Zachary-Michael Weiner songs that add up to as catchy and clever a score as any contemporary musical could hope for.
Nervous, nerdy Aaron finds Casey “kinda indie and pretty hot,” which unfortunately reminds him of “all those girls that ignored [him] all through school.” As for Casey’s first impression of Aaron, well it’s even worse that his is of her, the “pretty [darned] hot” art gallery worker finding him “a bit annoying and overdressed,” and giving off “the kind of vibe that says ‘Look at me, I’m stressed,’” none of which bodes well for the date we’re about to see unfold in ninety minutes of both real time and detours into fantasy land.
As our seemingly unlikely couple stumble through one awkward conversational moment after another in the Manhattan bar/restaurant they’ve chosen for a date set up by Casey’s sister (who’s married to one of Aaron’s work colleagues), assorted friends and family pop up in dream sequences to offer words of advice, mostly of the “get out now while you can” variety.
Aaron’s womanizing best friend Gabe (Justin Michael Wilcox) offers menu tips (“Salads are for wussies”) while reminding his childhood bestie how wrong his gorgeous-but-manipulative former girlfriend Allison (Kelley Dorney) was for him.
Casey’s married sister Lauren (Stacey Oristano) keeps wondering why sis can’t fall for a good guy instead of losers like Edgy Rocker (Wilcox) and British Guy (Leigh Wakeford).
Meanwhile, Casey’s gay best friend Reggie (Wakeford) remains at the ready with a prearranged “bailout” call, the kind that would normally get answered but not tonight, leaving Reggie to wonder why his ring tone is being ignored. It can’t be that things are actually going well for the first daters, can it?
Well, definitely not at first considering Aaron’s dismay—and his deceased Grandma Ida’s (Oristano) horror—upon learning that Casey is, in her own potentially deal-breaking words, “not a Jew,” news that provokes similar displeasure (though perhaps not an “Oy vey!”) from Casey’s Easter Bunny-loving dad (Scott Dreier), who simply can’t understand “why … people called ‘The Chosen Ones’ [would] choose to wear strange hats and circumcise their sons?”
No, indeed, Aaron and Casey’s first date seems hardly likely to lead to a second rendezvous, though you’d have to have failed RomComs 101 not to figure out from the get-go that there will indeed be a Happily Ever After, or at least a Happily For A While To Come for the mismatched-but-made-for-each-other pair.
Austin Winsberg’s book keeps audiences laughing throughout First Date’s brisk one act while offering food for thought along the way. Yes, Gabe and Edgy Rocker and Lauren and British Guy and Allison provide plenty of comedy whenever they pop into Aaron and Casey’s thoughts, but they are also serious reminders of those inner voices ever on the alert to sabotage happiness. And yes, Grandma Ida and Christian Dad do have their way with one-liners, but they bring up valid points that any interfaith couple might want to take into consideration when venturing into dating and beyond.
First Date also examines the particular challenges of blind-dating in the Internet age, when small talk can be skipped with a bit of Googling—Casey knows, for instance that Aaron once played the female lead in his all-boys high school production of Hello, Dolly!—a 21-Century phenomenon that makes for one of First Date’s funniest ensemble songs, “Forever Online.” (Imagine Google, Facebook, Twittter, Instagram, and YouTube in song-and-dance mode and you’ll get an idea of why First Date’s creative team was wise to give this cut-before-Broadway number regional theater rebirth.)
And speaking of regional theater, though First Date ran just five months at NYC’s Longacre Theatre (not all that rare these days, even with the most crowd-pleasing shows), it has gone on to a successful a post-Broadway life, perhaps due to the fact that it can be as entertainingly staged in a bare blackbox theater as in a major regional house, in addition to offering manna from Broadway heaven for musical theater BFA programs across the country.
Still, there’s nothing quite like seeing a show on the great big La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts stage, particularly when you’ve got scenic designer Stephen Gifford’s gorgeous, trendy bar set, Thomas G. Marquez’s super-duper array of quick-change costumes, Steven Young’s dazzling lighting, Josh Bessom’s crystal clear sound design, Terry Hanrahan’s marvelous collection of props, and Katie McCoy’s just-right hair design.
Above all there is master director Nick DeGruccio’s guaranteed stage magic, choreographer Lee Martino’s delightful dance sequences (the tip of the hat to Fiddler On The Roof is particularly brilliant), and casting director Julia Flores’s spectacular septet of actors, all of which add up to an absolutely fabulous 2015-2016 La Mirada season opener.
Recent Scenie-winning L.A. Musical Theater Star Of The Year Ginsburg makes it clear that he can play a more traditional (albeit still quirky) romantic lead every bit as engagingly as his character turns in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Man Of La Mancha, and Shrek The Musical, and his leading lady is every bit as sensational, Lustig’s captivating Casey making it equally clear why the NYC-based triple-threat won 2013’s New York Musical Theatre Festival’s “Next Big Broadway Sensation” competition. (That Ginsburg and Lustig have stupendous pipes, tiptop comic timing, and terrific chemistry only makes their performances more splendid.)
Supporting players Dorney, Drier, Oristano, Wakeford, and Wilcox are each more scene-stealingly perfect than the next, with special snaps for Wakeford’s sassy GBF’s series of “Bailout Song[s]” and Dreier’s sassy gay waiter’s show-stopping “I’d Order Love.” (If you think these two specimens of homosexual fabulosity are made for each other, just wait and see.)
Musical director Brent Crayon gets highest marks too, conducting and playing keyboards alongside Mike Abraham, Jonathan Aherns, John Ballinger, Sean Franz, and Eric Heinly in The (First-Rate) First Date Band.
Additional deserved program credits are shared by Jill Gold (production stage manager), Amy Ramsdell (assistant stage manager), Buck Mason (general manager), and David Cruise (technical director).
With the Broadway smashes Rent, Dreamgirls, American Idiot, and The Little Mermaid (and the potentially Broadway-bound Empire) arriving over the next nine months, La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts/McCoy Rigby Entertainment’s upcoming all-singing-all-dancing season is off to an impressive start with First Date.
And that’s more than just a first impression.
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Boulevard, La Mirada.
September 19, 2105
Photos: Jason Niedle