Review: First Date

Theater-Krysta Rodriguez

At it’s best, this show is as funny and charming as a well written (if not particularly insightful) sitcom episode. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a snob, I actually mean that as a compliment, doing that style really well isn’t easy. At its worst, though, the show is borderline offensive, and not in a focused and edgy Sacha Baron Cohen way, just in a muddled, tacky and unimaginative way.

I’m thankful that charm and wit eventually take the day in First Date – most of the worst stuff is in the first half-hour – and this is mostly due to Austin Winsburg’s engaging book. We follow, in more-or-less real time, a blind date between the ordinary but well intentioned Aaron (Zachary Levi) and the very offbeat and defensive Casey (Krysta Rodriguez).

Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner’s score is well-crafted but not always well-considered. The best example of this is their portrayal of Casey’s gay friend Reggie (Christopher Kusick). When he’s singing, Reggie’s an unfunny, unlikable cartoon.

When Reggie starts talking Winsburg’s words, though, he becomes an identifiable person. He’s still flamboyant, needy and over-the-top, but in a way that’s more recognizably human. I know this queen, and don’t dislike him. Music and lyrics need to be in the same world as the book, and that doesn’t always happen here.

Director Bill Berry has certainly framed this light-weight show in the best way possible, particularly in the casting. Levi holds the stage like an old pro, charismatic and dynamic. Krysta Rodriguez, fresh from her turn in TV’s “Smash”, is similarly energetic, bringing to her role a surprising warmth under all the deadpan snarkiness.

First Date is a good, but not a great, show, often amusing and, I’m happy to say, quite briskly paced. I look forward to still better things from all involved.

For tickets, click here.

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Review: The Orion Experience

Orion Experience

Resistance is futile. This show is so joyously silly, musically energetic and visually overpowering that it is impossible not to have a good time.

In The Orion Experience, the audience boards the Starship Orion (XL Nightclub outfitted with several additional screens for stunning full-surround projections by David Bengali) for an interstellar pleasure cruise. And that’s pretty much what you get. You don’t get traditional musical theatre, not by a long shot – lyrics aren’t foregrounded, and the plot is pretty simple and scematic, with spoken dialogue kept to a minimum.

Nope, The Orion Experience is more akin to a really exciting rock concert. In fact, conceiver/director Travis Greisler put this show together after hearing music by the band of the same name. The band Orion Experience sound like (and for that matter, look like) the Moody Blues, if they played hi-NRG dance music with 21st Century precision. Choreographer Misha Shields has surrounded them with dancers who are seriously getting down. Fun stuff!

The real alchemy of this show is the way in which all of these goofy elements – including Matthew Quinn’s Voice of the Computer who sounds very much like Fred Schneider of the B-52s – somehow arrive at genuine spiritual uplift by show’s end.

Part of that is the innate power of the rousing anthem “Love Saves The Day”, but I also think Greisler’s deft handling of the material’s mythic underpinnings has something to do with it. This is a band, after all, that has a song called “The Cult of Dionysos” (not included in the show). All in all, love does indeed save the day in this impressive, immersive joyride.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Tales of Joni

Tales of Joni_Mitchell-Blue

This is a very pleasant evening of the music of singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell, sung by a diverse cast of cabaret and musical theatre singers. I was drawn to see Tales of Joni because of Heather MacCrae and Lisa Asher – I’ve seen MacCrae live before and heard recordings by Asher. And indeed many of the brightest highlights of the evening do come from these two. Asher shines singing Joni’s hits, including a country-tinged “Raised on Robbery” and a very thoughtful and measured “Both Sides Now”.

MacCrae is at her best on a couple of less well-known songs from the early Mitchell album Clouds. She does a dynamic “That Song About The Midway” that evolves from a whisper to a belt, and a charming and winsome “I Don’t Know Where I Stand”.

The real discovery of the evening, though, is Nicholas Rodriguez singing “Conversation”. He remarkably turns this song about a romantic triangle into a truly poignant story of being in love with a closeted gay man, without changing a word. His open, highly expressive delivery makes it even more moving. It would be great to hear him sing “A Free Man in Paris”!

Gabrielle Stravelli is also a quite gifted singer – she probably has the most beautiful voice of the ensemble – but can sometimes oversing just a bit. When she reins that in, as she did for a sparse, reflective “Cactus Tree”, the results are really gorgeous.

One of the evenings chief pleasures is hearing these great voices sing together, especially for a spine-tingling version of “Woodstock”. Such a big, luscious, passionate sound!

My only real complaint about the evening as a whole: it is perhaps a little too polished. To my taste, Mitchell’s songs are at their best when their complexity and rough edges are given full play. As problems go, though, being too glossy and finished is a good problem to have. Overall, this is a really fine representation of songs both famous and obscure by one of America’s greatest songwriters.

For tickets, click here.