We all have days when all we want to do is kick back, turn off our busy brains and turn on a classic, no-surprises, screwball rom-com. When such an urge strikes, we wouldn't normally think of spending a night watching a play. After all, one goes to the theater to be cultured, to entertain one’s higher sensibilities. The serious art form of drama stirs the emotions we’re too afraid to face in reality and puts forth daring questions that change our minds about the universe. If a play is funny, it’s because of its cutting, satirical stabs at society. There’s certainly no innocent fun to be had at the theater, right?
Wrong. To wrap up its 40th season, Stage West Theatre in Fort Worth is offering a little piece of musical theater to satiate our undeniable (but maybe, sometimes, shameful and repressed) appetite for meaningless and hilarious love stories.
First Date ran on Broadway in 2013 (with a book by Austin Winsberg and music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner), and the entirety of this musical’s plot is expressed in its simple, two-word title. From the second the curtain goes up (curtain, in this case, being four restaurant-esque sliding panels that set the date night mood instantly), everybody in the audience knows exactly what’s going to happen at the end, and just about nothing that happens in the story comes as a surprise.
Of course, our leading man Aaron (he’s got a biblical name for a reason, wait and see), played by Seth Womack, is awkward, nerdy and getting over a long-term relationship. The only stock character to complement him would be the artsy, sassy, stone-cold (but deep down a heart of gold) Casey, performed by Amber Marie Flores. There’s no way these two will get along, the audience abidingly thinks as the two protagonists meet on stage for their blind date.
And in real life, they probably wouldn’t. But the audience has left the real world at this point, already drawn into the alternate reality of the stage. Here, all that matters is finding the right partner (whether “for the night or for forever,” as the first bop of the musical goes). As we watch self-conscious Aaron and overconfident Casey forge their way through the minefield of first-date thresholds, which range from awkward to heartbreaking and straight back to awkward, we know that they’ll overcome it all and end the play with the kiss.
At 2 hours plus a 15-minute intermission, the musical runs more or less in real time with the date it portrays. The length, as well as the pacing of the play, makes the audience feel as if they themselves are on a first date with Casey and Aaron. Every ice-breaking conversation is as painfully awkward for us as it is for the two (future) lovers — and every redeeming moment of heartfelt connection touches us as deeply as it does Casey and Aaron.
But for us, the less enjoyable parts of a first date are interspersed with hilarious interruptions from the five ensemble characters, who each rotate between several stock roles throughout the evening. Mary Burchill plays Aaron’s ex, weaving in and out of his fantasies both as she actually was and as Aaron wants to remember her; Brett Warner is memorable as, at various times, Aaron’s mother, Aaron’s Jewish grandmother and Casey’s sister; Lance Jewett resurfaces throughout the night as Aaron’s best friend or Casey’s stoner ex; Randy Perlman stands out as the rather invasive waiter and Casey’s rather inadequate therapist; Collins Rush changes his skin most frequently and skillfully, switching between Aaron and Casey’s future son (a fantasy that arises hilariously early in the play), Casey’s sexy British ex and Casey’s gay best friend.
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Without this wide array of characters circling in and out of the play, we would have no choice but to become bored of Casey and Aaron’s date. But, as in anybody’s favorite romantic comedy, the supporting characters are such a delight that they brighten even the dull moments of other people’s romance. Although each of the supporting characters corresponds to a specific type, these types are daringly offensive. The degree of offense correlates directly with how hilarious these side characters are. Additionally, the minor story lines carried out by these side characters add a charm to the story the audience would dearly miss if the only people we cared about were Casey and Aaron.
The saving humor of the supporting cast is almost always accompanied by the upbeat soundtrack. Witty lyrics match catchy tunes — the three renditions of the “Bailout Song” will get stuck in your head, but only after making you laugh like mad. The songs carry the story along, making funny moments funnier and tender moments tenderer.
When the curtain closes on the final tune, the audience has been charmed, refreshed by laughter and convinced that the romantic comedy does indeed have a welcome place onstage.
Co-produced with Theatre TCU, First Date runs at Stage West Theatre through Oct. 13.