Performing Arts

The cast is first rate in ‘First Date’ at Actors’ Playhouse

Erica Lustig and Clay Cartland (center) go on a ‘First Date’ as Laura Hodos, Conor Walton, Roland Rusinek, Nick Duckart and Jessica Booth look on at Actors’ Playhouse.
Erica Lustig and Clay Cartland (center) go on a ‘First Date’ as Laura Hodos, Conor Walton, Roland Rusinek, Nick Duckart and Jessica Booth look on at Actors’ Playhouse. Alberto Romeu

In the dating world, nothing quite equals that pendulum of agony and ecstasy known as the blind date.

We’re not talking online dating sites, where you pick your partner and the result can be anything from pleasant coffee chitchat or a torrid one-night stands to a happy marriage. We’re talking being set up by friends or relatives, people who think you and this other person might be perfect for each other. In the ecstasy scenario, they’re right. Agony? You wonder if your well-meaning pal knows you at all.

First Date, a pop-rock musical with Broadway cred now getting its regional premiere at Actors’ Playhouse, explores many of the things that can and do go wrong on blind dates. Director David Arisco and musical director Manny Schvartzman bring out the best in a terrific cast that, more often than not, makes the show’s less-than-inspired material thoroughly entertaining.

With music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, and a book by Austin Winsberg, the show pairs a successful financial world guy named Aaron (Clay Cartland) and an edgy commitment-phobic beauty named Casey (Erica Lustig) for a date that has “disaster” written all over it. But in musical theater, of course, anything can happen, and fairy-tales do come true.

Aaron and Casey meet in a chic New York restaurant, where they’re surrounded by actual customers, a cheeky bartender-waiter and various people (friends, relatives, exes, all conjured in Aaron’s and Casey’s imaginations) who offer musical commentary on the uncomfortable couple and their date.

So except for Cartland and Lustig, the appealing duo who play Aaron and Casey throughout First Date, most of the actors in the talented cast get to demonstrate their impressive versatility.

A radiant Laura Hodos plays Casey’s sister, Aaron’s grandma and his late mom. Nick Duckart is Aaron’s best bud and one of the bad-boy rocker types that Casey has always preferred. Jessica Booth is Aaron’s sexy, toxic ex and several other gals. Roland Rusinek is that nosy bartender-waiter, a therapist and Casey’s “father.”

And Conor Walton nearly hijacks the show (in a hilarious way) with his portrayals of another of Casey’s inappropriate exes, Casey and Aaron’s angry hip-hop spouting future son and, most memorably, Casey’s gay pal Reggie. Reggie, who calls Casey three times to give her an excuse to bail on the date, is an over-the-top stereotype. But Walton plays him with such a precise comic flourish that Reggie gives the show a wild jolt of energy whenever he appears.

Cartland and Lustig, with a character-defining assist from costume designer Ellis Tillman, make Aaron and Casey a dating world odd couple.

Tall, bespectacled and wearing his straight-from-the-office suit, Cartland makes Aaron a nervous, deeply scarred guy given to opening his mouth and inserting his foot. He imbues his performance with subtle comic grace notes, and his duet with Hodos on The Things I Never Said is one of the show’s standout vocal moments.

Lustig, a redhead whose Casey looks ready to go clubbing the moment Reggie calls, gradually reveals the fears and vulnerability beneath Casey’s tough, judgmental exterior. Her solo Safer explores her angst, and Lustig makes the song another of the musical’s highlights.

Plagued with an unreliable sound system during its otherwise glorious production of Ragtime, the company has installed a new system in its main performance space at the Miracle Theatre. For solos, duets, smaller numbers and dialogue scenes, the improvement is noticeable. But when the actors and band crank up the pop-rock volume on certain numbers, the lyrics are tough to discern.

How First Date wound up on Broadway, where it managed a six-month run in 2013, is anybody’s guess. But its regional premiere in Coral Gables is entertaining and, for singles and the rest of us who used to be, resonant. And the cast? First rate.

If you go

What: ‘First Date’ by Austin Winsberg, Alan Zachary, Michael Weiner.

Where: Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday (additional 2 p.m. matinee March 25), through April 12.

Cost: $59 Friday-Saturday, $52 other performances (10 percent senior discount, $15 student rush, excludes Saturday-Sunday).

Information: 305-444-9293 or www.actorsplayhouse.org.

  Comments