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Monday, April 2, 2012

Fall in Love With the New Musical "First Date" -- a review

The best material for humor comes from ordinary, yet extraordinarily uncomfortable, everyday situations. Think of a first date, especially a blind date. Now, a partnership between Seattle’s two acclaimed not-for-profit theaters— The 5th Avenue Theatre and ACT– A Contemporary Theatre—proves this truth in a most hilarious, fresh, honest, and occasionally even poignant format: a new musical called “First Date.” I drove the freeway from Tacoma through monsoon-like rains and high winds to see this show on opening night, and within the first five minutes I knew I would have hated to miss it.

Aaron (Eric Ankrim) and Casey (Kelly Karbacz) in First Date, a co-production between ACT and The 5th Avenue Theatre. Photo: Chris Bennion
This world premiere runs through May 20, 2012, at ACT, in the Falls Theatre, where there every seat offers a perfect view. If you don’t see it in the Northwest you might have to buy a plane ticket. “FirstDate” seems destined for New York, where it could add its own luminosity to The Great White Way. It might even launch a new age of appreciation for this art form. Before I write another word, here is the link to the box office. You might want to order your tickets now—even before you finish reading this—or they could be sold out.

I delighted in discovering the team of Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, whose music and lyrics just kept knocking me out with their wit and perfect tone. Those two talents, when combined with Austin Winsberg—who wrote the book for “First Date”—constitute a trio with the potential to change theater history. Add to that, all the other members of the team, from both theater companies, and you have the perfect recipe for what is already looking like a major hit. With musical supervision and arrangements by Dominick Amendum, musical staging by Josh Prince, and direction by Bill Berry, success was a certainty. Every song, every scene, brought a tidal wave of applause.

Kelly Karbacz (center) plays Casey in the world premiere of First Date, a co-production of ACT and The 5th Avenue Theatre. Also pictured l-r: Rich Gray as the waiter and Brandon O’Neill and Billie Wildrick as fellow diners.
Photo: Chris Bennion

If the word “musical” makes you think of the 1950s—and let’s admit it, some rather silly scenarios —you are in for a big surprise.  In fact, the element of surprise in “FirstDate” kept the audience alert and engaged to the point that the time went by too quickly, leaving me wanting more.  You won’t hear the typical musical styles or watch the typical hero and heroine fall in love. This time reality takes on a starring role. This musical feels so much like real life it might make you gasp with surprise, cringe with remembered embarrassment, realize how some things never change, or feel relieved that you never lived through a date as awkward as this one. But no matter what, I guarantee it will make you laugh from beginning to end.
Even those who have known only the most sheltered and innocent existence can appreciate the angst of two people who meet at a bar/restaurant on a blind date.  The female lead, Casey—played by Kelly Karbacz— is cynical and is usually attracted to bad boys.  The male lead, Aaron—played by Eric Ankrim—works in the world of finance and comes off as a nerd. Or at least this is our first impression.  It seems all they have in common is plenty of emotional baggage.

Then the torture begins. The supporting cast members literal become all the characters represented by the nagging voices this couple hears in their heads, especially ex-lovers, but also the Jewish grandmother, the devoutly Christian father, the well-meaning but critical friends, and many more.

Aaron’s best friend—a direct opposite in personality and lifestyle—launches into rap, and also shouts, “What’s the point of imagining me if you won’t listen to a freaking word I say?” Even the search engine Google takes on a human (female) form and merrily taunts them with lyrics like “The world wide web is forever. Take note or you’re totally screwed,” reminding us of the nightmarish dilemma of a person’s web presence and profiles that never go away.

The cast of First Date, a co-production between ACT and The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo: Chris Bennion
Through their impressive acting and singing abilities, and the clever use of props, this talented cast continuously morphs from one zany personality to the next. The members are: Benjamin Harris, Vicki Noon, Sonya Meyer, Billie Wildrick, Brandon O’Neill, and Rich Gray and Greg McCormick Allen, who each play the role of the waiter during different phases of the musical’s run. I can’t emphasize enough that this cast, including Ankrim and Karbacz in the leads roles, stunned the audience with their talents, including singing. I had heard Ankrim sing in “Oklahoma!” but was more deeply moved by his powerful and classically beautiful voice, here.  Karbacz did an equally fine job.

In spite of all the clever and hilarious lines and the kind of  language you hear on the street but might not expect to hear in a musical, “First Date” does have a serious side, namely, our need and desire to be loved and accepted for who we really are. As the story progresses, the real Aaron and Casey, the vulnerable and loveable individuals hiding behind the walls they’ve constructed, are revealed to us, and we become invested in the wish for them to finally find true love and happiness in a plugged-in world that can seem shallow, impersonal, and cold.  

What started out looking like an impossible situation in modern times, blooms into a romance of the most classic kind, one every fan of musical theater craves.  Karbacz and Ankrim, as Casey and Aaron, provided total satisfaction when they sang the final song, “Something That Will Last.” In the real world from which these characters grew, there are no guarantees. But they show us that true love and happiness are possible in spite of the divorce rate and other depressing factors, and that the prize it is worth the risk of personal vulnerability.  As far as “First Date” itself goes, I will bet that this musical is, indeed, “Something that Will Last.”

For more information contact either theater.

The 5th Avenue Theatre:   
Box Office: (206) 625-1900 or (888) 5TH-4TIX

ACT- A Contemporary Theatre:
Box Office: (206) 292-7676

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