It’s clear that some online theatre has borrowed heavily on and learned from cinema in putting its productions together. Indeed, it can be the case that it is hard to see where one ends and the other begins (cf The Picture Of Dorian Gray). And here’s another in the shape of the small scale musical First Date which pays homage to the classic Hollywood rom com of a mismatched couple who spend a lot of time sparring only to realise that what they are engaged in is not so much a fight as a courtship dance.
Although the show has played on Broadway it has never really taken off elsewhere (there were a couple of concert performances in London in 2019) and so this version gives a new lease of life to an inoffensive and sometimes entertaining piece of work which isn’t particularly demanding. As the title indicates Casey and Aaron are meeting up (blind) for the first time in a New York bar/restaurant. She is apparently cool, collected and going with the flow. He is apparently nervous and keen to impress to the point where his banter starts to become embarrassing. Both, inevitably, have back stories and both, inevitably, reveal them to one another during the course of an evening where you can see the songs coming a mile off by the trajectory the dialogue is taking. Though there is a degree of wittiness at work, Austin Winsberg’s book isn’t the production’s strongest suit. In an overly forced effort to make Aaron’s badinage cringeworthy and Casey’s reactions nonchalant the whole thing risks tumbling down a rabbit hole of cliché. The songs by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner veer heavily towards the bland though a couple of numbers that take things in different directions are a pleasant surprise.
The central couple played by Samantha Barks and Simon Lipkin are excellent at what they do and make what they have to work with seem better than it is. Both get a powerful “moment in the spotlight” song and contrast their characters nicely at the outset. However, as there’s never really any doubt that these two are getting together at the end there’s not much that the actors can do to introduce a sustained note of tension to proceedings. Everyone else is portrayed by the three restaurant staff members (Oscar Conlon-Morrey, Danielle Steers and Nicholas McClean) who morph into any other characters which the piece requires – relatives, ex- partners, best friends and so on. Some of these cutaway scenes actually hold more interest than the main storyline which, I think, tells you everything you need to know about this show. Conlon-Morrey regularly snatches proceedings from under everyone’s noses as the overly camp waiter, even if the character is a cliché well past its sell by date in 2021. However, I did enjoy his schtick during the interval which pokes fun at the idea that in online theatre, controllable at the click of a mouse button, we need an enforced intermission to do whatever it is we need to do.
The whole has been filmed by director Dean Johnson with some luscious visuals and delightful film pastiches. Indeed, the various visual styles grafted onto the material are often the saving grace of the show and make up for some of the longueurs in the original. The main setting is the stylish atmosphere of the Crazy Coqs cabaret venue in Soho though they seemed to be having a particularly quiet night; Aaron and Casey are the only visible customers but still have to wait forever for their food to appear. It was a nice touch to have a coda which takes place outside on the streets. However, I did find myself irked that this was clearly happening in London even though it is supposed to be in New York – surely there was a better way around this mismatch.
I wonder how much time everyone spent watching the TV sitcom Friends in preparation for this musical and I’ve no doubt that fans of that show would find First Date to their liking. It is is an inoffensive way to spend an evening that is only ever heading in one direction, especially for chalk meets cheese rom com connoisseurs. Unfortunately, for me, there was rather too much of the latter on display.
First Date is available on the Broadway HD platform – click here
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