A cute FIRST DATE at the Carrollwood Cultural Center
Going to a show not knowing what it’s about isn’t too different from being on a blind date: 1) It can start off shaky, even horrifying, and end happily; 2) it can start strong but end up going astray; 3) it can be incredibly stellar from first to last moment; or 4) it can start depressingly in a horrible mode and never recover (where an obvious rescue call is needed). I saw the small-scale musical, FIRST DATE, at the Carrollwood Cultural Center last night without knowing much about it; guess which of the above scenarios matches my experience?
PREMIER RENDEZ-VOUS, with music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner and a book of Austin Winsberg, centers on an awkward blind date between two New Yorkers, the nerdy Aaron and the “artistic” Casey. We follow every disastrous and heartfelt moment of their meeting, from the not so positive first impressions of each other, to that reward break where neither knows what to say, to the moment they receive the dinner check, all leading up to the end of the evening, where perhaps a hopeful kiss awaits. It’s a sometimes incisive, sometimes cute, sometimes edgy musical with a few funny bits and lots of heart.
I went to the FIRST DATE relatively blind; I had seen and heard some of the songs performed at Thespian festivals in the past, but otherwise I came with no preconceived ideas. And of the scenarios above, #1 comes closest to my reactions. The show started off pretty shaky, a rocky, rough start, where the first song, a group number called “The One”, just wasn’t enough for me. The red flags went off; had I left for a disastrous evening of the theater? Some other songs didn’t work out later on the show, including “C’est quoi tu m’aimes”, which sadly sounded like screaming off-night karaoke at the Brass Tap after a few glasses of too much green tea.
Things get a little more grounded when we meet Aaron and Casey, though Winsberg’s dialogue seems too sit-commy and forced for my tastes. But something miraculous happened during the show. I suddenly got invested in the story of these two flawed individuals and started to enjoy it to the fullest. For the first twenty minutes or so, I wondered if the show could ever survive its shaky start, but not only did it recover from a rocky start, it soared. PREMIER RENDEZ-VOUS has become moving and funny and sincere and authentic, everything we expect from an evening at the theatre. Although inconsistent, the production ultimately won me over.
The cast is overall wonderful.
In the role of Aaron with glasses, a BDV (“Blind Date Virgin”), Craig Ruska appears as a synthesis of Seymour Krelborn, J. Pierrepont Finch and the actor Charles Martin Black-smith. Dressed somewhat “douchey” in a coat and tie (the tie was later removed), Ruska has crisp comedic timing and superior vocal chops, and while it’s not a naturalistic performance, she is quite effective and entertaining. We’re rooting for him, even when the character makes cringe-worthy mistakes that make his date – and the audience – quite uncomfortable. Ruska’s duet on “The Things I Never Said,” with his real wife, Erin Ruska playing his mother, will bring tears to your eyes.
Kara Doyle is wonderful, with a wonderful singing voice, as Aaron’s blind date, Kara, a young woman used to dating bad boys. However, she continues to be described as “artistic”, but nothing in her demeanor or attire suggests this “artistic” persona (we learn later that she works in a gallery). Plus, early on, when Aaron calls her a BDS — a “blind date bitch” — she just sits there, not really reacting. I’m sorry, but if at the start of a date someone suggests that you’re a slut, you’d probably respond with warmth, perhaps even getting up to leave.
Mr. Ruska and Mrs. Doyle are a lovely couple, and we love them both very much, mainly because it’s not just that we know them…it’s because we are their. (And if you’re a “Quantum Leap” fan, then this is the show for you.)
Erin Ruska and Ashley Whitting shine in a variety of roles, from Aaron’s Jewish grandmother (Ms. Ruska) to his hurtful ex, Allison (Ms. Whiting). Mackley Fogarty and Chris Kadonsky-Grant are strong actors with wild energy in various parts, but their voice acting in some numbers isn’t their forte. Grant Sparr appears on the spot for some much-needed energy, appearing as Reggie, Casey’s “bailout” call in case his date fails. Sparr is electric on stage, something of an entertainer’s spark plug (or maybe we should label him a Sparr Plug).
Marcus Blake stands out as a waiter who comments on the actions of first dates, his “I Order Love” one of the highlights of the night. And his use of puppets at one point is a funny laugh (watch the show to see why there’s a puppet in the middle of this production). His deep voice is off the charts, and without him in some of the band’s numbers, it could tip over to being unlistenable.
Musical director Michelle Kadonsky-Grant leads the tight group on stage which includes Catherine Baker on piano, Rusty Wirt on bass and Kevin Adair on drums. A choreographer is mentioned in the program (Devan Bittinger), but there doesn’t seem to be much dancing in this show.
Ultra-talented director Keith Eisenstadt, with the help of his assistant director, Rhett Ricardo, deftly leads the way and makes the most of his small cast. After the aforementioned difficult opening, I really settled in and enjoyed the evening he created. There are some brilliant touches, including the server listing upcoming shows as menu items and specials. But there were also some pacing issues, including a long, far too long pause at the start (suddenly I thought I was watching a pantomime rather than a musical). Also, I would like to see a list of songs in the program; if that happened Lease Where the sound of music, shows we all know, so no song list is needed. But most people don’t know FIRST DATE, so a song list would be very helpful for us beginners.
At one point in the series, when Aaron admits to playing Dolly Levi in an all-male production of Hello Dolly! he says his performances have been described as “eerily convincing”. This is a description that also matches FIRST DATE: Curiously convincing. And yet, it speaks to so many people who have gone on blind dates or are still in the dating pool. It’s a musical that captures the zeitgeist of the past decade but still speaks to us today, especially the song about the dangers of online dating and social media (“The World Wide Web Is Forever” ). There are joys and frustrations brought to light in the show, just as there are in life. FIRST DATE does indeed have an edge – it reflects modern times, so it better have some bite – but there’s also a dandy sweetness and a tonnage of wit that will leave you smiling.
FIRST DATE plays at the Carrollwood Cultural Center until September 25.