There was a time, in years past, when there was a reliable slot along Broadway for what was called the "summer musical." These occurred in years when the less desirable playhouses were fully booked during the peak season but became available as July approached. These summer musicals were usually of the small-and-unheralded variety. Big-budget shows with star actors, writers, or A-list producers, don't need to come in during the summer. Why open when elite New Yorkers are away, with prime group sales and theatre party bookings less likely, unless you have to?
This month we have not one but two examples of the genre. These are true specimens, mind you, with music, lyrics, book and direction by Broadway newcomers. (While this in reality signifies nothing, it can be interpreted to signify something.) The second -- Soul Doctor, about a Rock Star Rabbi in the swinging '60s or something to that effect -- opens at the Circle in the Square on August 15. But first comes First Date, which opened last night at the Longacre.
First Date is about -- well, you can guess. Remember your first date? Everybody has an embarrassing episode in their personal memory book, it is to be assumed, so why not turn a typically fraught first date into an edgy, intimate, modern-day musical comedy? Songwriters Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, working with librettist Austin Winsberg, present us with sweet-hearted nebbish Aaron (Zachary Levi, from Disney's Tangled) and wildly earthly Casey (Krysta Rodriguez, from The Addams Family and NBC's Smash). They refer to each other, jokingly, as the virgin (because he wears a suit) and the slut (because she has a tattoo).
The authors have set their musical in a cozy restaurant, where they are accompanied by two other couples also on first dates (although they fill in for various subsidiary characters). There is also a warmly friendly waiter who helps our friends along, stopping midway to sing a big musical comedy number he has written for between courses. The conceit of the musical is that as the main characters go through their first date, one or the other interrupts the proceedings to sing his or her thoughts to the audience while everybody else freezes. This happens about twelve times.
An example is when Aaron suggests they play Jewish geography and Casey says fine, even though she is not a Jew. Freeze. The other couples and the waiter leap on chairs--suddenly wearing black hats with curly ringlets attached -- and sing "Oy Vey." We are off into a big production number, or as big as you can get with five people on a unit set keening and wailing. This is interrupted by the hero's dead grandma, like Fruma Sarah in Fiddler on the Roof, who chastises her grandson while admitting that she once "shtupped a schvartza" but nevertheless threatens to break his matzoh balls.
Well, yes. There is an audience for this sort of thing; even at the Longacre on old Broadway, it got a round of squeals. (On the equal opportunity front, half the chorus of five becomes Catholic mid-number, with the rotund waiter -- an exceedingly droll Blake Hammond -- doing a low-frills version of Victoria Clark's instant costume change in Cinderella.)
But why should the character react this way, other than to get four minutes-worth of cheap laughter? Here we have a Manhattan 20-something, circa 2013. The match has been set up by his work buddy, the girl's brother-in-law. If religion is a deal breaker, or a date-breaker, wouldn't the boy simply have asked if the girl was Jewish? But no; given the opportunity for an over-the-top Abie's Irish Rose number, the authors can't resist taking the flimsy tangent. There are numerous other examples, too, including a computer screen with a talking "Ms. Google" and repeated musical phone calls from Casey's stereotypically over-the-top "gay friend." Who winds up on a first date with the amiable waiter, by the by.
The songwriters do themselves a disservice by relegating most of their first Broadway score to gimmick songs. When in the final twenty minutes they offer some straight ballads -- "Safer" for Rodriguez, "In Love with You" for Levi, and the finale "Something That Will Last" -- Zachary and Weiner reveal promise.
As for Rodriguez and Levi, they display great charm and enormous likability throughout. These two are most welcome on Broadway, even if their sketchily lightweight summer vehicle is perishable.