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Theater review: 'First Date' at JCC CenterStage

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There are a few "firsts" in life that almost everyone can relate to: first day of school, first kiss, first home — the list goes on. But perhaps the "first" that draws the most entertaining anecdotes is a first date (even more so if it's a blind date).

The co-creators of "First Date: The Broadway Musical Comedy" had a story or two of their own, so Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner (music and lyrics), along with Austin Winsberg (book), decided to write an entire show centered on a blind date. "First Date: The Broadway Musical Comedy" played on Broadway from August 2013 to January 2014, with Zachary Levi ("Tangled," TV's "Chuck") and Krysta Rodriguez (Broadway's "The Addams Family," TV's "Smash") in the leading roles.

The tuneful tale follows nervous, nice guy financial investor Aaron Goldfarb (played at CenterStage by Eric Schutt) and confident, hip art museum curator Casey Clark (Abby Rice) on their first date, a setup orchestrated by Casey's sister, Lauren, and her husband, Kevin. A five-member ensemble — Alex Black, Megan Colombo, Sammi Cohen, Dylan Tomas Kastel, and Ashley Jake Wegman — plays almost 20 supporting characters through the course of the show as Aaron and Casey navigate past relationships, current advice, and future consequences.

The show opens with "The One," a number dedicated to dating horror stories. The vocals were a little pitchy at first, but smoothed as the actors relaxed into the first few minutes of the performance. The company is young, energetic, and massively talented. (Many of the faces will look familiar to CenterStage patrons, as more than half the cast members performed in "Titanic: The Musical" together earlier this year.)

Rice and Schutt make a convincing pair and project strong onstage chemistry. This isn't the first time they've played at stage romance: in "Titanic" last May, the duo played star-crossed, lower class Irish lovers. Here, they portray polar opposites as Rice embodies manic pixie dream girl Casey, who can't commit to anyone other than a bad boy, and Schutt takes a less dominating role as the sensitive, once-jilted Aaron. (It's not unlike watching "500 Days of Summer" in musical form, if it only lasted for one date.) But of course, Schutt and Rice can really, really sing — and that's what makes the 1 hour and 40 minute show worth seeing.

The supporting cast can sing, too, and they have to flex their acting muscles. In primarily the role of Aaron's best friend, Gabe, Alex Black plays an overly masculine character with a soaring voice and crisp movement. Ashley Jake Wegman spends most of his stage time as the well-meaning, sassy waiter who writes his own music on the side. (Wegman also choreographed the show, which shows in his flawless execution of each dance number.)

Megan Colombo is at her most hilarious as Grandma Ida, Aaron's Jewish family matriarch returned from the dead to stop Aaron from dating a non-Jewish girl (a la "Fiddler on the Roof"). Sammi Cohen shines as both clingy ex-girlfriend Allison and the Google Girl ("The World Wide Web is Forever"). In the role of Casey's BFF Reggie, Dylan Tomas Kastel takes full advantage of having the catchiest song in the show ("Bailout") but is equally scene stealing as Future Son and Rocker Guy.

JCC CenterStage producer and artistic director Ralph Meranto has assembled a strong cast that capitalizes on this witty show at every moment; an important factor for a local premiere that most patrons haven't encountered. A four-piece band, led by musical director Matt Wegman, excels as the music moves from rap to ballad to rock riff. Scenic designer Eric Williamson has fabricated an attractive, modern restaurant where the entire show takes place; and Toni Elderkin's lighting creates ambience for the many breakout scenes.

When Meranto welcomed the audience on Saturday, he asked if anyone was on a first date. A few hands slipped up quickly, followed by nervous laughter. Then, Meranto asked who hadn't been on a first date in a long time. Nearly half the audience raised their hands, digits sparkling with engagement rings and wedding bands. Though the concept of dating may be nostalgia for many, "First Date: The Broadway Musical Comedy" provides a charming, irreverent evening of entertainment, which is exactly what most audience members want during the holiday season. CenterStage has routinely chosen non-Christmas specific shows that still feel festive and cheery, and this show falls in line nicely with that goal.

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