Have you ever wondered what it would be like if every awkward or paranoid thought you had during a first date was accompanied by a catchy song and a choreographed dance number? The Columbia Musical Theatre Society answered that question this past weekend in its production of “First Date” at the Minor Latham Playhouse.
“First Date,” originally a Broadway musical, tells the story of a blind date between two young adults, Casey (Anna Fondiller, BC ’19) and Aaron (Asher Varon, GS/JTS ’18). Casey is a veteran in the blind dating scene and is highly non-committal. Aaron can recite exactly how many months, weeks, and days it has been since his ex-fiancée Allison left him at the chuppah. From their dramatically different wardrobes (Aaron’s suit is juxtaposed with Casey’s electric blue feather earrings and lace tights) to their religious differences (Aaron is Jewish, Casey is not), the two characters have little in common. That doesn’t mean, however, that each one is not exactly what the other needs.
CMTS’s production of this musical offered an accessible blend of comedy and drama, and was a well-balanced end to a rocky semester on campus. A mixture of quippy and heartfelt song lyrics provided the lighthearted piece with substance. Fun that was more than just fluff, the show provided a much-needed escape for stressed Columbia students with the story of a first date that may just have mimicked some of their own personal experiences.
Perhaps the most powerful moment of the show was Fondiller’s gorgeous performance of the slow-tempo song “Safer,” in which Casey confesses to the audience her method of protecting herself by refusing to let anyone else in. Fondiller’s range was incredible and her demeanor, that of a woman afraid to seek the connection she desperately wants and needs, was convincing.
Playing opposite Fondiller, Varon’s cautious yet open Aaron was the perfect person to help Casey break down her walls and fulfill her desire for connection. Varon delivered a character who was awkward, verging on the point of rude, yet somehow still incredibly easy to root for.
“First Date” struck a perfect balance between tenderness and humor. Vulnerable numbers such as “Safer” and “The Things I Never Said,” an especially tear-jerking song about a letter of apology from Aaron’s deceased mother, were immediately counterbalanced by lighthearted jokes that kept the mood up. The audience roared with laughter at songs such as “That’s Why You Love Me,” about Casey’s attraction to bad boys, and “The Girl for You,” in which Aaron imagines the objections that his deceased Jewish grandmother would have to Casey.
Director Hazel Rosenblum-Sellers, CC ’19, cited “The Girl for You” as her favorite number in the musical.
“As a Jew, I relate a lot to [the song] and I think, because this is such a Jewish campus, a lot of people understand where that [song] comes from,” Rosenblum-Sellers said.
Other superb sources of humor were Michael Kirshner, SEAS ’20, who played Casey’s over-the-top best friend Reggie, and India Beer, BC ’20, as Aaron’s best friend Gabi. While Gabi is a male character named Gabe in the original production, Rosenblum-Sellers said she changed the character to a lesbian woman to make the show more relevant.
“I think playing with that character in that way is more 2016 than doing, like, douchey frat bro,” Rosenblum-Sellers said.
Rosenblum-Sellers’ production also differed from the original Broadway version with its Columbia-themed set—a reproduction of both The Heights, a popular bar for students, and the Cathedral Parkway-110th Street subway station—and the increased use of choreography. While some of the dance moves, such as kicklines and the Locomotion, were fairly cheesy, they added the energy to the production that Rosenblum-Sellers said she wanted.
Overall, “First Date” was a well-executed, relatable romp through the difficulties of dating as a young person. In the midst of finals season and at the end of a highly tense semester on campus, it was a breath of fresh air.
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