When they meet for drinks at a Manhattan restaurant in the new Broadway musical First Date, Aaron (Zachary Levi) and Casey (Krysta Rodriguez) have very little in common aside from a shared interest in a long-gone NBC action series with a cultish following. You’d be forgiven if you thought that show might be Chuck — the short-lived series that made Levi a star, at least among the Comic-Con set. (It’s actually Quantum Leap.)
Levi is particularly winsome and adorable as Aaron, a decidedly square, salad-eating fella still smarting from a recent breakup to a harpy of an ex. His singing voice, like his character, is engaging but a little thin. A belter he is not. (Still, as his fans know, Levi is no musical newbie: He dueted with Mandy Moore on the Oscar-nominated tune ”I See the Light” from the Disney animated feature Tangled.)
Rodriguez, a veteran of Broadway hits like In the Heights and The Addams Family, is perhaps best known for her breakout role in the second season of Smash as the roommate/rival of Katharine McPhee’s Karen in the downtown musical Hit List. Here, she projects an admirable magnetism as a brusque, red-meat-eating downtown chick who takes no guff, is repeated drawn to bad boys, and seldom carries a relationship past a second date.
You can guess how this all ends, right? And you’d be absolutely right. While director Bill Berry keeps the story zipping along, he’s hobbled by a bland score (by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner) that leans too heavily on pastiche as well as a paint-by-numbers book (by Austin Winsberg) that strings together a series of overly broad clichés rather than flesh out truly distinctive characters. Thus we meet Casey’s finger-snapping gay ”bestie” (Kristoffer Kusick, sounding like Lee Press-ons on a chalkboard), who pops up about two times too many as her potential first-date bailout option, and Aaron’s Jewish grandmother (Sara Chase), who does everything but juggle matzo balls in a stereotype-laden song about the prospects of a shiksa marrying into the family. (Sample lyrics: ”This isn’t the girl for you! – Oy oy oy! / This isn’t the girl for you! – A goy goy goy!”)
If the supporting characters are little more than one-dimensional shtick figures, Aaron and Casey aren’t much deeper on the page. (Though Casey might be trying to break her dead-end pattern of dating irresponsible bad boys, you suspect she’d be better off with a steady, job-holding guy with at least a bit edginess about him — even a tattoo might do. And that’s clearly not Aaron.) But there’s a certain crackle to the performances by Levi and Rodriguez, a kinetic in-the-momentness, that elevates the material. Though your head may tell you to cut short this First Date, you find yourself rooting for this unlikely couple (and the show) to succeed. C+
(Tickets: www.Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)