Lawrence Toppman

‘First Date’ funny as (and deeper than) you might expect

A potential couple (Katerina Papacostas and Matthew Schatz) share their anxieties and passions in “First Date.”
A potential couple (Katerina Papacostas and Matthew Schatz) share their anxieties and passions in “First Date.” Daniel Coston

I last went on a first date before Angelina Jolie had heard of Brad Pitt, before Will Smith had heard of Jada Pinkett, before anyone to speak of had heard of the Kardashians (o blessed day!) and long before anyone had heard of Googling a prospective mate.

So I can’t vouch for the authenticity of “First Date.” But I think the laughter at Booth Playhouse Thursday was a blend of shocked chuckles, rueful acknowledgment of remembered failures and recognition of real, sometimes touching behavior.

Director-choreographer Dan Knechtges shrewdly placed five real-life couples onstage in the First Ward Restaurant, where Aaron and Casey (Matthew Schatz and Katerina Papacostas) are about to have drinks and dinner on a first encounter.

These audience members provide atmosphere and ad libs, and actors bounce energy off them. And in this musical, the first Blumenthal Performing Arts built from scratch, they bring verisimilitude. I saw one guy frequently shake his head in an “I’ve been there” gesture.

The action feels intimate. Main characters deliver monologues to the audience onstage and out front; three other actors move among the crowd in the permanent seats. The six-piece band led by keyboardist Rick Bertone sits in the restaurant, as if playing for patrons. (And, infrequently, overwhelming the singers a little in heavier numbers.)

Three supporting players whip wigs, costumes and attitudes on and off. Paul Ianniello cooks up both a Xanax-nibbling waiter with musical-comedy dreams and a nun. (In this show, Sister Mary Ignatius really does explain it all for you. That’s one of many homages, from a “Dirty Dancing” lift to a “Fiddler on the Roof” tribute with a dead, angsty Jewish grandma.)

Kevin Zak puts on a Luke Kuechly jersey and a macho swagger to offer romantic advice – mostly involving sex – to best buddy Aaron, and Gretchen Wylder coos as Aaron’s dimwitted ex-fiancée and carps as Casey’s sister.

In the center of it all, Aaron and Casey circle each other warily: first like wrestlers looking for a takedown, then like dancers deciding who should lead, finally as confessors who realize baring a little of their souls is the likeliest way to share a little affection.

The show dips into pathos as they reveal family tragedies, but the book by Austin Winsberg and songs by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner don’t keep us there too long. We end with a laugh and a clinch, reaching the inevitable destination. But as Knechtges said in an interview, the journey’s what matters. His five tour guides – 15, counting the watchers onstage – make it a pleasure.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘First Date’

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

Where: Booth Playhouse, 130 N. Tryon St.

Tickets: $19.50-$59.50.

Running Time: 95 minutes without intermission.

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

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