By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy
Running Time: Approx. 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission
Most of us have been there. A well-meaning friend or family member wants to set us up with someone who will be “perfect” for us. So, we give in (usually after relentless nudging) and find ourselves in a coffee shop or restaurant, waiting anxiously to meet our possible future lifelong mate. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it’s a total disaster, but every time, we learn something about ourselves and that can be a good thing or a bad thing. In Spotlighters Theatre‘s latest offering, First Date with a Book by Austin Winsberg and Music and Lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weine, Directed by Fuzz Roark, with Music Direction by Michael W. Tan, and Choreography by Emily Frank, gives us a glimpse, from a safe distance, into one of these first dates and all the feelings, anxieties, and emotions that go into the whole messy affair.
In a nutshell, First Date tells the story of, well, a first date between Aaron and Casey, who have been set up by Aaron’s best friend and Casey’s sister. Aaron has no experience with blind dates and Casey is what one would call a serial dater, having a lot of experiences, with first dates, anyway. Throughout the show, we are given a glimpse into the thoughts that go through Aaron and Casey’s heads as these thoughts materialize in front of us in the form of friends, family, ex-girlfriends, etc. We are shown the insecurities, anxieties, and fears of these two young people as they discover themselves, in the process.
Alan Zemla’s Set Design is clever for this space, that he knows so well. He has managed to create a cozy setting using the entire theatre, making the audience feel as though they are sitting in the same small restaurant where the action is unfolding. The use of easy to move set pieces and detailed set decorations make for an authentic, immersive design that works quite well for this piece.
Choreography by Emily Frank is high-energy and fun and the ensemble seems to be having a blast performing it. She seems to know her cast well, and has created moves that her cast can perform effortlessly. With it’s contemporary style, it works well with Michael W. Tan’s focused, and well-rehearsed Music Direction. Together, Frank’s Choreography and Tan’s Music Direction add great value to this production and make for a delightful evening of theatre.
Fuzz Roark takes the helm of this production and his vision for this modern piece is clear in his Direction. This may be billed as a one act, but pacing is a bit dragging and this piece can easily be broken up into two acts, if just to let the audience run to the restroom or stretch our legs a bit. Not even a decade old, it can be tricky to make a piece like this look authentic, but Roark does just that. With so many modern day references such as cell phones, Facebook, dating apps, and the like, dialogue could be very scripted, but with Roark’s splendid casting, he has managed to guide this ensemble to portraying an impressive realism. The transitions are smooth and the piece flows nicely (aside from the minor pacing issue) making for a charming and enjoyable production.
First Date has quite a few characters with a small ensemble taking on various roles and this strong ensemble takes on the task with gusto and dedication. Aside from the actors portraying the main characters, Aaron and Casey, the other five actors impressively take on all of the other characters in this piece and their hard work pays off.
Matt Wetzel and Marela Kay Minosa take on the supporting roles of Man 2 and Woman 2, two other patrons in the restaurant, as well as other important characters such as Allison, Aaron’s chilly ex-girlfriend, and Reggie, Casey’s flamboyant best friend who leaves messages on her voicemail throughout the evening. According to Roark, Minosa is making her stage debut and she gives a very good first showing. She is committed to her roles and seems to understand how they move the story along, especially the role of Allison. Though a bit subdued in her performance, she gives the character an icy and snooty overtone that is required of this character and should be applauded for her first time treading the boards.
It’s clear to see that Wetzel is giging 100% to all his characters and he shines with his praise-worthy performance as Aaron’s Future Son as he easily raps his way through the number “The Girl for You.” He also gives a very strong, humorous performance as a British Rocker, with a spot on British accent and good comedic timing in another featured number “That’s Why You Love Me.” His energy is consistent and it’s easy to see he’s enjoying performing his roles but in such an intimate space as Spotlighters, it may be a bit too much at times. He’s very expressive and, on a larger stage, it works perfectly, but when the audience is inches away, it comes off as unnatural. For instance, though some may find his portrayal as Reggie, the over-the-top friend of Casey amusing, I find it to be stereotypical and a bit mocking, though the audience seems to get a kick out of it. However, that being said, he has a good comprehension of his characters’ roles in this story and has has a good command of the stage making for a strong, entertaining performance.
Adam Abruzzo and Alyssa Bell take on the role of Man 1 and Woman 1, but also take on other, important roles such as Gabe and Lauren, the best friend of Aaron and sister of Casey, the architects of this first date. Both of these actors are able and make all of the characters they portray individuals. Abruzzo, as Gabe, is comfortable playing this aggressive, in-your-face character, making him quite the lovable asshole, who really just wants what’s best for his best bud. He also carries his own, vocally, along side Wetzel in his featured number, “That’s Why You Love Me,” as well as his part in the rap (again, along with Wetzel) in “The Girl for You.”
Bell is cast well in her roles, especially as Lauren, Casey’s over-bearing sister and Aaron’s Mother. Her performance is authentic and varied, giving each character their own space and, vocally, she shines with a sweet tone as in number such as the emotional “The Things I Never Said.” Also, she’s hilarious portraying Aaron’s very Jewish grandmother with a good grasp on comedic timing and character.
Jim Gross, as Waiter, the love-lorn observer, who has seen more than his fair share of first dates, gives a commendable showing. With a big presence and command of the stage, he certainly makes one stand up and take notice, but, like Wetzel, seems to be a bit too big for Spotlighters intimate setting. He knows his character and is dedicated to his performance, but it seems a bit scripted, but probably would not be on a larger stage. In his featured number, “I’d Order Love,” his booming voice easily fills the theatre and he completely understands the humor of this number and performs it nicely.
Reed DeLisle as Aaron and Lindsey Litka as Casey are the definite highlights of his production. Both of these actors have an uncanny chemistry and a completely natural delivery of dialogue that makes one forget these two are reading from a script. They are comfortable with their characters and with each other making for impeccable performances. They both have a strong presence and easily command the stage. Both are superb actors but, vocally, Litka is the stronger singe. That’s not to say DeLisle can’t hold his own, because he certainly can, as he exhibits in the poignant “The Things I Never Said.” Litka is an absolute powerhouse with every note she sings and her flawless performance of “Safer” will downright give you chills.
Final thought… First Date at Spotlighters Theatre is a fun, thoughtful piece that you do not want to miss this season. The story is deep and poignant with an important message of not only self-discovery but discovery of the people who surround you and the interactions involved in first meetings. With high energy choreography, and a great cast with impeccable chemistry and two leads who have a natural delivery and ability to portray these insecure characters, you’ll be able to relate, if not about first dates, about how anxieties and self-doubt occasionally creep into our everyday lives. It’s also a story of how we can overcome those doubts to find our happiness, when we really need it. Get your tickets now!
This is what I thought of Spotlighters Theatre’s production of First Date… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!
First Date will play through January 21 at Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul Street, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 410-752-1225 or purchase them online.
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