Book and Direction by Alex Timbers
Music and Lyrics by Michael Friedman
based on the play by William Shakespeare
A Production of the Joseph Papp/Public Theater
Free at the Delacorte in Central Park

Book by Austin Winberg
Music and Lyrics by Alan Zachary & Michael Weiner
Directed by Bill Berry
Starring Zachary Levi and Krysta Rodriguez
Longacre Theatre
Official website

Reviewed by David Spencer

By its very nature, a review, in most cases, is an opinion; at its absolute best, it’s an informed opinion backed by reason, a knack for accurate deconstruction and a certain amount of fairness, which I suppose might be considered the ability to transcend one’s own personal taste; in a negative review just enough not to put off potential audience members who may cotton to the material; and in a positive review just enough not to mislead those who would be unhappy—though the latter is by far harder: usually you can only express your enthusiasm; but in particular instances, you can at least flag something as more ideal for one type of audience than another.

               But it’s still, ultimately, in any context where sensible disagreement can exist, an opinion.

               With that firmly (I hope) established, I despair.

               It is perhaps inevitable that musical theatre has veered so disproportionately into territory that is youthy, packagy, trendy, and that not only dramatizes inexperience and callowness, but also often celebrates it—that is after all a reflection of the times, and arguably American musical theatre has always been the most commercial theatrical form there is—but it has also, at its very best and most ambitious, been among the most enduring too. Hence the calculation, the mercenary targeting of a demographic, the desire to deal in everyperson archetypes engaged in prosaic pursuits, rather than memorably iconic characters aiming at almost impossible goals (like Mama Rose), or dealing with profound philosophical conundra (like Tevye), is something I find deeply troubling. And I guess it’s no mere coincidence that my first two character examples happen to be parents. While there are certainly single and younger musical theatre protagonists of legend, they nearly always exist in a societal hierarchy that contains characters from older generations too; they may be singular personalities but they are not immune to established society; indeed, often that’s what they’re fighting against, and in certain rare instances, coming to grips with.

               And I’ve always thought traditional musical theatre was ultimately “safe,” a haven protected from the excesses of the sung-through Euro-musical and the raggedness of the rock musical, so long as craft survived—by which I mean well-structured books, lyrics rendered impeccably to principles, and solidly-structured and thoroughly composed music.

               But I’m not so sure anymore.

               Oh, it’s easy enough to shrug off something like Loves Labour’s Lost, the musical rendering of the Shakespeare play recently offered free by the Public Theatre at the Delacorte in Central Park. Delivered by the team who foist Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson upon the world, librettist-director Alex Timbers and composer-lyricist Michael Friedman, it’s a very similar structural mess to their last enterprise, and likewise revels in how younnngg and freeeeee its spirit is, in an exuberant manner that, yes, wins over people who will cotton to the innate pretension of renegade voices, but that a more demanding audience may just find disheartening. Timbers’ direction, I will say, is better here; not quite as pushy and labored. And Friedman’s score isn’t quite so anarchic as in BBAJ. But in the end, it feels like a work which will evanesce into the Summer night come the end of its run. Its influence within the trend of trivial musicals is minor, save that it adds to their number.

               It’s others that give me pause. For now, in many instances, deft craft is being employed to elevate the insignificant. Gifted, painstaking practitioners are embracing the transitory and trivial; or being commissioned to embrace it and happily cooperating. And not without sincerity, for genuinely pro-grade musical theatre writing can’t be faked.

               In the case of First Date, one can hardly blame the creative team for the comfort-food game they play. Librettist Austin Winsberg and the joint music & lyrics duo Alan Zachary & Michael Weiner have taken all the tropes of the situation summed up in the title and given it a cook-up that would appeal not only on a date evening, but will, at least in the immediate future after its Broadway run (whether than run be short or long) do brisk business possibly on tour and certainly in stock & amateur, college and some more liberal-minded high school venues. It gives us the potential pairing of Aaron (Zachary Levi) and Casey (Krysta Rodriguez) in a semi-upscale New York City restaurant. They’ve been set up by mutual connections and as they get to know one another in real time, there are also sidebar private-thought detours in which they conjure friends, relatives and advisors to give them advice, enact possible scenarios and recreate backstory. In the current Broadway production, these supporting roles are played by the multiply cast 4-person ensemble of Bryce Ryness, Kristoffer Cusick, Blake Hammond, Sara Chase and Kate Loprest; but the afterlife brilliance of the conceit is that each of their 14 supporting roles can be played by a separate actor, with no loss to the effectiveness of the material; very theatre-group friendly, that.

               There’s not an abundance of originality in the way these roles (each a deliberately familiar archetype) are particularized, just enough personal quirks for quick carricature; nor are there any real stylistic or compositional surprises in the score, which is perhaps as it should be, in a context this assiduously populist, in which familiar association is an asset; the game here is nudging the audience into lighthearted this-has-figured-into-my-life recognition. But the book’s game is played with the Swiss-watch funny-line proficiency of the best of the youthy sitcoms; and the score is likewise very canny in knowing well its territory, both pop-musically and dramatic-thematically, with clear, concise, amusing lyrics. There are performances and direction (by Bill Berry) to match.

               And, the night I was there, there was a segment of the audience quite enthusiastically into it. A large segment. And primarily a young segment. And nothing wrong with that.

               But what strikes me, and a number of others who make musical theatre our lives—others of all ages, I hasten to add—most about First Date, is its commercial, and perhaps commercial-minded efficiency. And nothing wrong with that either.

               But it left me so starved for the gravitas of bigger dreams, bigger aims and bigger themes…and it seemed to mark a tectonic shift that I think has been coming for a long time but hasn’t been taken seriously as a real turn in the gestation of the art form. Not in the way shifting used to happen, when the legendary directors and writers pushed the envelope of narrative, style and theme; and in ways that surprised you, whose ripple effect wouldn’t even be fully understood until the next surprise; no, this new shift is notable for its focus moving away from pushing the envelope, and toward quick and “danger”-free gratification of the moment.

               Musicals never used to be able to do that; for the most part they took too much time to develop. When they landed with an audience, they landed big; the gratification went deep, and the reverberation could last a lifetime. But as Tevye says, “It’s a new world, Golde.”

               I just don’t think it’s anywhere near the best of all possible worlds…

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