You should not read this review. There are two reasons for that. First, I am from Kansas City and therefore put a high value on being a nice person. Unfortunately, being a nice person and a critic sometimes don’t go together. This is one of those times. I’m about to be mean and, most likely, hurt the feelings of anyone involved with “First Date,” which opened Friday night on the indoor stage at Starlight Theatre and was awful.
Which leads us to the second reason you shouldn’t read this review. Critics tend to be snobs. We often have opinions that are at odds with mainstream tastes. Consider, for instance, that “The Big Bang Theory” is not an especially good TV show, yet is by far the most popular sitcom in America. People, in short, often like things that critics hate. Such was the case on Friday when a majority of the crowd very clearly and loudly enjoyed this superficial, utterly pointless and irredeemably hackneyed pile of fluff.
“First Date,” which played on Broadway for several months, is the fault of three men. Austin Winsberg, writer of “Gossip Girl,” is to blame for the book. Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner are culpable for the music and lyrics. The trio, friends since high school, reportedly based the show on their own dating experiences. Those experiences then, must have included people bursting into generic pop songs at inopportune moments and reducing the most complex of human emotions and character traits into a set of creaky rom-com tropes and easily digestible clichés.
The story, what there is of it, concerns a blind date between Casey (Lauren Braton) and Aaron (Shea Coffman). The former is a jaded “serial dater” with a painfully predictable fondness for “bad boys.” The latter, Aaron is a sweet, nerdy Wall Street type. Oops. Excuse me. He’s a “finance” guy who dabbles in mergers and acquisitions. Although obviously set in New York City, a line of the script was altered to shift the scene to Kansas City, apparently on the theory that audiences would squeal with delight, rather than being distracted, at hearing the word “Leawood.”
From their un-cute meeting to the inevitable romantic denouement, “First Date” feels less like a play than a personified version of a Buzzfeed list. It’s “10 Things to Avoid on a First Date” made flesh. Casey and Aaron, of course, do all ten, including their bizarrely sexist rumination on whether a “real man” would order a salad. Yet, by the evening’s end, despite having nothing in common, nor displaying the slightest whiff of physical chemistry, we are supposed to believe that the pair establishes a rapport and, spoiler alert, a budding romance.
But wait. There’s less. Along the way, our hero and heroine get advice and admonitions from voices in their respective heads, embodied by a restaurant staff who morph into singing, dancing relatives, ex-lovers and friends. Scarcely a cultural stereotype is left untouched by this bunch. We get the shrewish, Jewish ex-girlfriend and the flamboyantly gay Latin best buddy. We get the “good girl” older sister, complete with pearl necklace, who married well and (gasp!) moved to the suburbs – a word that’s spit on stage as though it were profanity.
Let’s not blame the cast, though, who courageously flail at their substandard material. Coffman, a graduate of Raymore-Peculiar High School and UMKC, is the best of the bunch. His singing voice is serviceable and, after a stilted beginning, he eventually managed to imbue Aaron with something approaching a personality. Lauren Braton, however, was miscast. Her voice was silky and full as always, but she never found a way to play Casey that made her character likable in the least. Maybe, though, there isn’t one. The role is just so profoundly unsympathetic it may simply be impossible to get an audience invested in her happiness.
Rounding out the cast, Francisco Javier Villegas was another rare bright spot, along with Andrew Schmidt and April Strelinger, who gamely played their multitude of roles, some more convincingly than others.
It wasn’t all a disaster. There were perhaps a half-dozen genuinely chuckleworthy lines. Christine Peters did a nice job with the multilevel set. Angie Benson led the very capable band. Beyond that, though, “First Date” was the theatrical equivalent of a McRib. It seems like a fun, guilty pleasure, but made of less than meets the eye, sits like a brick and you should probably be a little bit ashamed of yourself if you actually enjoy it.
Then again, what do I know? The crowd laughed on cue, occasionally nudged each other with knowing elbows and – albeit halfheartedly – rose from their seats in ovation when this vacuous and sophomoric mountain of tripe reached its merciful conclusion. Which is why you should ignore my opinion. That’s why, in fact, you probably shouldn’t read this review at all.