But then I started hearing reports during previews that the show might actually be good, and from sources that I trust. Of course, that's no guarantee it won't still be a flop, but at least First Date was shaping up as something more than a doomed vanity project. So when I attended the show last weekend, I entered the Longacre with modest hopes that I might actually be entertained.
And I was. First Date is far from perfect, but it has a tremendous amount going for it, including a riotously funny book from Austin Winsberg, a reasonably tuneful and clever score by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, and sharp, intelligent, albeit occasionally fallible, direction from Bill Berry. The music is never less than pleasant, although occasionally there seems to be a song that's in search of a melody. The lyrics for the most part show craft, although at times they're too densely packed to be fully comprehensible. That's a liability in a show that traffics in clever. And when the show gets serious, the lyrics have an unfortunate tendency toward cliché and bromide: "Time for me to face my fears/And fight back years of uncried tears." Yeesh.
As the title implies, First Date is about a prospective couple, a man and a woman, meeting for the first time in a restaurant for drinks, food, and who knows. The male character, Aaron, played by Zachary Levi, is a bit of a clod, while Casey, played by Krysta Rodriguez, is an edgy artsy type with a taste for bad boys, which Aaron most decidedly is not. Not a very inspired setup or set of characters, but the charm here is what the authors, the production staff, and the cast do with the admittedly quotidian scenario. (The cast also features five supporting players, most notably Bryce Ryness and Kristoffer Cusick, each wonderfully protean in a variety of roles.)
The main draw here in terms of the piece itself is Winsberg's at-times ferociously funny book. But surely director Berry shares a good deal of the credit in working with his expert cast in creating this abundant levity. The comedy is especially strong when the stage business involves Zachary Levi, which thankfully is quite a bit. I don't really watch television, so I'm not familiar with Levi's work in "Chuck," but he's a natural comic, and an extremely likable and confident performer. Levi is particularly effective, both comically and dramatically, in his 11 o'clock number, "In Love With You," in which he imagines a cathartic confrontation with the ex-fiancée who quite literally left him at the altar.
First Date is especially engaging for the first 20 minutes or so, after which the authors seem less sure on their feet, at least at times. The first misstep comes during a song in which Aaron discovers that Casey isn't Jewish. What follows is a forced comic number full of unsurprising stereotypes. In general, the show works much better when it's trying to be funny. Where it often falls down is in genuine sentiment. When the show gets earnest, it also tends to get clumsy. One song about Aaron's departed mother is especially ponderous. Eventually, First Date feels like two different shows: the confident comedy and the somewhat lumbering drama. Thankfully, the show ends on a note of sincerity that brings the show together in a way that almost makes you forget the missteps along the way.
Will First Date be a hit? I've given up trying to predict such things. What I can say is that it's a strong enough show to make me eat my dismissive words about vanity projects. In fact, we should really be applauding anyone who takes such a risk in bringing an original musical to Broadway at a time when we're being bombarded by safe adaptations and jukebox shows, with apparently even more branded product on the way.