Lawrence Toppman

‘First Date:’ New musical should get you smiling and thinking

A couple on an initial encounter (Katerina Papacostas and Matthew Schatz) size each other up in the musical “First Date.”
A couple on an initial encounter (Katerina Papacostas and Matthew Schatz) size each other up in the musical “First Date.” Justin Barbin

For five millennia of recorded history, dating went smoothly. A potential couple sat at opposite sides of a living room while their parents looked them over, and a matchmaker whispered in everybody’s ears. Marriages may have been a mess, but that first date was a snap.

In the 19th century, personal choice turned everything upside down. And 200 years later, we are awash in fake Internet profiles, online investigative procedures, dates where a first impression has to be made successfully in 29.3 seconds, and rescue calls from friends have been built into the evening to provide escape hatches. (You don’t even need friends; a phone app will do the same thing.)

That’s the world of “First Date,” the first self-produced musical by Blumenthal Performing Arts. The show, which premiered on Broadway in August 2013, opens Tuesday at Booth Playhouse for an eight-week run.

Though it’s billed as a comedy – and what’s funnier than the discomfort of others? – director-choreographer Dan Knechtges knows “comedy has to be as serious as possible. It has to be fused with truth. And comedy is hard, because there are more levels than there are in tragedy.”

The show focuses on Casey and Aaron, played by Katerina Papacostas (who understudied the title role of “Evita” in the national tour) and Matthew Schatz (who did “Heathers” off-Broadway). The characters are in their 30s, mature enough to have gone through this process many times but young enough not to be embittered.

The date has been set up by her brother-in-law, who knows Aaron from work, and they meet in a restaurant with trepidation and hope. Five actors play patrons, friends, family members and a waiter who warn, counsel or encourage the pair. The set has been designed specifically for Charlotte, and a new song by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner has been added.

“It’s the modern conundrum,” says Knechtges. “We don’t reach out to people, because we’re so focused on ‘me.’ If a date doesn’t go well, it’s the other person’s fault. This is a show about two people who don’t immediately get along. Idiosyncracies separate them, and they have to learn how they could go hand in hand.”

Knechtges saw it at the Longacre in New York, a theater nearly three times the size of the Booth. “Intimacy is always better for a show like this,” he says. So he made a change for Charlotte: Some audience members sit on the stage, as they did when he choreographed “Xanadu” in New York. (He got a Tony nomination for that.)

“The audience becomes another character,” he says. “Actors talk to them when they soliloquize. There’s a lot of verisimilitude; food gets served to the principals, and it takes place in real time. Yet there are unreal elements when we go into the characters’ psyches; you have good and bad guys on their shoulders, telling them what to do.”

Knechtges got the call because he’d worked with executive producer Megan Larche Dominick, whom the Blumenthal hired to pull the show together. He also knew of the organization and president Tom Gabbard from mutual New York connections.

“Relationships in this industry are so important, and he’s well-respected there,” says Knechtges. “His (influence) can only pay off for Charlotte.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘First Date’

When: Sept. 27-Nov. 20 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Booth Playhouse, 130 N. Tryon St.

Tickets: $19.50-$59.50 (slightly reduced Sept. 27-28).

Details: 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org.

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