Chicago Theatre Review
Millennial Connections, with Music
First Date – Royal George Theatre
Just in time for Valentines Day, and poised to warm up those cold Chicago nights, this pocket-size, recycled sitcom-style musical is cute, sometimes clever, but doesn’t really break any new ground. Told in real time, it’s the story of two 20-somethings, a nice Jewish boy named Aaron and an edgy, artsy girl named Casey, who meet in an upscale Chicago bar/restaurant on an arranged blind date. The couple get off to a not-so-surprising rocky start that goes from bad to worse.
To reinforce this banal first meeting, that’s peppered with familiar dialogue, we also see and hear the couple’s inner monologues and their past relationships played out. They’re performed by the waiter and four other bar patrons. Casey’s pushy older, married sister, as well as her “bail-out” gay friend, Reggie; Allison, Aaron’s first love who dumped him, and his best friend Gabe, always present to offer unsolicited romantic advice, are among the voices in their heads. It’s no big surprise, however, that the date, which seems to go nowhere fast, eventually ends happily. It’s that kind of show, mindless fluff with a few glimpses of wisdom, primarily orchestrated to send theatergoers home in good spirits.
Surprisingly, this show played for five months in New York City. It’s not a bad show, but it simply doesn’t say anything new or original about that dreaded beast called the “blind date.” This is, after all, a new era with different problems to address. An initial romantic meeting, during which there’s little connection, can possibly end eventually with happily ever after; but in today’s age of immediate gratification, it seems less likely. In today’s world there are fewer living, breathing human beings setting up their friends and family members on first dates. Social media, like Facebook, Google, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram, are the new matchmakers. Although all of these sites are incorporated in one clever musical number entitled “The World Wide Web is Forever,” this show mostly skirts the issue of how anonymous connections are the way we mostly meet others in the 21st century.
Austin Winsburg’s book could do with a bit of updating. The mostly pleasant pop score by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner is okay, but ultimately forgettable. The best part is many of the lyrics, although audiences would be hard-pressed to recall any of them the following day. J.R. Rose’s direction and Becky Dedecker’s choreography is dynamic and makes good use of the cabaret space they’re given, but despite the intimate quality of this piece, the production feels a little cramped.
That problem stems from two concerns. First, it feels as if the establishment tried to stuff too many seats within this modest space. Then there’s Thad Hallstein’s stylishly fashioned, ultra chic bar setting. It’s nicely tucked into the corner, allowing for three-quarter staging, with Elizabeth Doran’s five-piece combo partially visible off stage right in another dining area. However, the audience has been crammed right to the edge of the playing area. Indeed, the first row is actually part of the set, providing a table for the theatergoer’s beverage but also offering a dangerously close level on which the cast can sing and dance. The effect, which may have sounded good in theory, is uncomfortable, too close, challenges visibility for anyone but first row patrons and is simply an accident waiting to happen.
The cast is quite good, despite the material. Charlie Lubeck and Dana Parker play Aaron and Casey with the necessary angst and apprehension. Both actors are charming, have pleasant voices, but are often overpowered by the band or the ensemble. John Keating creates a lasting impression as, among other roles, the flamboyant waiter who wows the crowd with his novelty number, “I’d Order Love.” Adam Fane, who plays almost everyone, including “bail-out” friend Reggie, is very funny, sings well and dances with finesse. Shea Coffman, playing Gabe and others, is the strongest singer and plays everything with a driving power. Cassie Slater is especially strong as Aaron’s mother and Casey’s sister, and demonstrates excellent comic timing, with energy to spare. Anne Litchfield Calderon is okay as Allison, but lacks the dynamics and charisma found in the other performers.
For audiences seeking a simple musical comedy that offers a few interesting comments about relationships, but provides an obligatory happy ending, this show would be a fine choice. It’s a pleasant, mindless entertainment that features amusing characters and has a peppy, pop score that’s a bit loud, but fun. Just don’t expect an earthshaking exploration of the mating game in the 21st century. This is simply a musical sitcom, aimed at millennials, but without those annoying commercial breaks.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 11-March 29 at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 312-988-9000 or by going to www.firstdatechi.com.
Additional information can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.