REVIEW: First Date

If you were to read the script for FIRST DATE without hearing the music or seeing it staged, you would probably not like it very much.  While there are some funny lines, seeing them on the page without context or the right mix of performers to deliver them could easily come off as hokey.  Bad, even.

However, when you add a team like the one assembled by D. Lynn Meyers you get a big, fat, undeniable hit.

Meyers, who directs a majority of the shows on her stage, wisely hands this one over to Vince DeGeorge.  DeGeorge is a well-kept secret in town; his work on the stages of UC-CCM has been extraordinary, taking the students there to new heights in his short time as the Joseph Weinberger Chair of Acting for the Lyric Stage.  (In English, this means he teaches the musical theatre students how to act – and more.)  As a director, he has an artistic sense and an affinity for his actors.  In talking with the cast after last night’s performance, working with Vince was a pleasure. He said the same about all of them.  This is the first time he’s worked in Cincinnati on a non-CCM production; it should be the first of many.

This romantic comedy also seemed to foster a non-romantic love across the talented ensemble.  They seem to genuinely like each other.  When that happens, the show tends to be tighter.  The energy stronger.  And this cast and crew has overcome the uneven script to delight the opening night audiences (and already sell out many upcoming performances.)

We meet Aaron (an appropriately awkward Michael Gerard Carr) who is nervously waiting for his blind date, Casey (terrific vocalist, Sarah Hoch).  Casey is a little intense; a little intimidating.  They encounter a waiter (the perfectly cast Jared D. Doren), and other imaginary characters played deftly by the ensemble (Maya Farhat, Andrew Maloney, Jeremy Parker, and Nathan Robert Pecchia.)  Farhat is one our cities finest young performers; it’s fun to see her getting this kind of work as an intern at ETC.  Maloney is a utility player in musicals, with a nice voice and an ambitious stage presence.  Parker (like Carr, a graduate of the CCM Acting program) brings personality and consistency in her roles as a Jewish grandmother, Casey’s sister, and Aaron’s late mother.  And Pecchia, a senior at Wright State University, is simply outstanding. He capitalizes on every moment of stage time he’s given with hilarious and outlandish bits.  It really is a fantastic ensemble.

A show like this needs to be well-rehearsed.  Timing is everything in comedy and kudos to DeGeorge for wrangling these comedians and reigning them in so that they maximize the humor in the show.  That wouldn’t happen, by the way, without the work of an excellent stage manager.  Brandon T. Holmes is heroic in timing cues and making sure this show goes off without a hitch.  The lighting and set design by Brian C. Mehring is vital to the show’s success, as well.  His use of color and light-focus accentuates the story.

But my favorite addition to this show is the live band, led by Scot Wooley.  With keyboard and guitar on one side of the stage and bass and drums on the other, Wooley keeps the show moving without neglecting his elegant style.  The music is fun, upbeat, and one of the best parts of the production.

It is my sincere hope that the success of this production (and my expectation of sellouts for “Little Shop of Horrors” at the Playhouse soon) will serve to motivate our high-quality, professional theatres to consider more musicals.  I hope DeGeorge gets more work around town.  And I hope everyone gets an opportunity to experience this fun, romantic production before it closes on February 5th.

BLIND DATE runs through February 5th at Ensemble Theatre on Vine Street in Over-the-Rhine.  Tickets and more information are available here.