Critic's Pick: 'First Date' at Ensemble Theatre

Make a date with this ETC production about the universal experience of launching a new relationship.

Jan 25, 2017 at 10:34 am

click to enlarge L-R: Sarah Hoch, Michael Gerard Carr and Jared D. Doren - Photo: Ryan Kurtz
Photo: Ryan Kurtz
L-R: Sarah Hoch, Michael Gerard Carr and Jared D. Doren
Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati’s current production, the regional premiere of the musical First Date, might be familiar and intriguing territory for some theatergoers in their 20s and 30s. But it’s also a show about the anxieties and rewards of launching relationships that anyone can experience — and that many of us have. 

The show (book by Austin Winsberg, music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner) debuted in New York City in 2013. It’s already had several international productions — first dates are undoubtedly a universal experience — and I suspect it’s on its way to becoming a popular work at numerous regional theaters hoping to attract younger audiences. The show’s script is contemporary and realistic, but seasoned with a dash of zany humor. At ETC — where the production has been staged by Vince DeGeorge, who teaches “acting for the lyric stage” at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music — it’s fresh and entertaining.

First Date has a simple premise: It follows the arc of one evening of potential romance. Aaron (Michael Gerard Carr) is an inexperienced guy on a blind date with Casey (Sarah Hoch), who’s done this a lot. This one has been set up by her sister and brother-in-law, who’ve provided some advance notice that, naturally, isn’t quite accurate. (The show’s first two numbers, “The One” and “First Impressions,” address expectations and reality.) Casey has ended up as a “serial dater” who’s impatient and never satisfied.

Five additional actors fill the roles of servers and other restaurant guests, frequently transforming into momentary incarnations of grandmas, exes, bad-boy boyfriends, best friends — and figments of Aaron and Casey’s imaginations. They are Maya Farhat as Aaron’s self-centered ex-fiancée, Jeremy Parker in several key female roles, Nathan Robert Pecchia as Aaron’s darker angel, Andrew Maloney as Casey’s gay friend and Jared D. Doren as a solicitous waiter. 

The ensemble of five also fulfills the role of a latter-day Greek chorus, popping around corners to react to awkward moments in Casey and Aaron’s conversations and hovering behind the pair as their evening teeters on the brink of catastrophe. They often provide humorous commentary and subtext.

The show feels a tad long (it’s 90-plus minutes, no intermission) as it careens through the course of an evening from “First Impressions” and awkward food ordering (does what you order tell your date something about you?) to “The Check!” But First Date has a knack for making hard right turns just when you think something is about to become totally predictable, perhaps even sappy. That keeps it entertaining because these turns tend to be toward forthright honesty that yields laughter. This is especially true regarding Aaron’s romantically clouded recollections of his fiancée that are eventually and hilariously dismissed.

The young cast does a nice job, clearly formed into a supportive ensemble by director DeGeorge. Carr ably captures Aaron’s tentative, apologetic nature. Hoch, a newcomer to ETC’s stage, has a veneer of haughty arrogance trying to hide a heart that’s yearning for something more profound. Farhat’s coy portrait of Aaron’s romantically recalled fiancée slips on and off with just the right degree of humor, and Pecchia’s bad-boy moments, rendered as he wears a cocky fedora, are pitch-perfect.

Jeremy Parker is a caricature of a Jewish grandma, but she also becomes a caring mother and Casey’s matchmaking, pushy sister. Maloney’s bitchy protective friend to Casey has some very funny moments, and Doren always has a twinkle in his eye as he endeavors to keep the couple on a navigable course toward a happy ending.

First Date plays out on another stylish set by Brian c. Mehring; a silhouetted New York skyline behind a sleek wine bar with bottles neatly arrayed. 

This is a show that keeps you waiting for what’s coming next and fulfills your hopes in ways you didn’t entirely expect. In fact, it has some things to say about looking beyond veneers and first impressions. That’s a formula for great theater.

FIRST DATE, presented by Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, continues through Feb. 5. More info: