‘First Date’ a First for SDMT at Horton Grand

San Diego Musical Theatre has become known for producing high quality large-scale shows at downtown’s Spreckels Theatre. They’ve recently expanded their three-show season to include two smaller-scale, longer run, musicals presented at the Horton Grand Theatre. First Date, the company’s initial offering at the new venue, looks as though the expansion gamble may well pay off.

A blind date where each person might describe the other as “cute” would be considered a success. First Date styles itself as a “cute” show, and audiences are likely to agree.

Aaron (Joshua Cavanaugh) and Casey (Cassandra Nuss) meet for a drink at an urban bar and restaurant. He’s a busy financial manager. She works in a gallery and on launching a photography career. He is rebounding from a previous relationship, she’s what is known as a “serial dater.” The prognosis is iffy from the start.

From left: Lindsay Joan, Jonathan Sangster, Zackary Scot Wolfe, Cassandra Nuss, Lauren King Thompson, Joshua David Cavanaugh, and John Massey
Photos by Shawna Sarnowski

Casey may be a lot more experienced at these things than Aaron, but she’s rarely been on a blind date. So, each person has moral support available. Aaron’s “player” friend, Gabe (Zackary Scot Wolfe) is observing, ready to jump in with advice about how to have the evening end in bed. Casey has a GBF (gay best friend – Jonathan Sangster) who is primed to call her so that she has a way of ending the date quickly if need be. Their waiter (John Massey) has diagnosed the situation and is poised to play yenta. There’s other women lurking in Aaron’s imagination (played by Lauren King Thompson and Lindsay Joan), including his mother and his ex.

Austin Winsberg’s book starts conventionally and not promisingly, as it appears that skeptical Casey is poised to shoot down inexperienced Aaron. When the scene shifts into what’s going on in Aaron and Casey’s minds, though, things get more interesting. Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner’s songs kick in, and the bar erupts as the fantasy sequences are acted, sung, and danced out. The songs flesh out the fairly standard story – I can’t imagine this piece working if it wasn’t a musical – but by themselves they aren’t particularly distinguished.

As a package, though, it definitely qualifies as cute.

Aaron and Casey succeed in spite of themselves (this is a romantic musical comedy, after all). Mr. Cavanaugh and Ms. Nuss succeed in their roles through a combination of down-to-earth appeal and skill at putting over songs. Mr. Wolfe is at his best after donning a baseball cap and perching himself in odd locations as he tries – and fails – to coach Aaron. Ms. Joan has her big moments as Allison, the ex, and her performance makes a potentially unlikeable character acceptable. Ms. King handles the character parts with good humor. Mr. Massey knows how to take over the stage (he starred in SDMT’s production of The Producers after all). His waiter is only a little larger than life, and he gets to be a truth-teller, which is always welcome in these sorts of stories.

Jonathan Sangster

And Mr. Sangster pretty much walks away with the show. His GBF is just flamboyant enough to be hilarious but not so flamboyant as to be offensive. And, Mr. Sangster’s timing is impeccable. His first role out of the ensemble, Ali Hakim in New Village Arts’ Oklahoma, earned him a Craig Noel Award nomination, and this performance certifies him as the real deal.

Since this is SDMT’s first production at the Horton Grand, creative team members are still finding their way around. Director J. Scott Lapp, Music Director Jon Lorenz, and Choreographer Allison Spratt Pearce all add nice touches to their work, which, collectively, keeps the show moving in an appealing manner. They are hampered, however, by Stephen Gifford’s dull-looking unit set, which eliminates most scene changes but which features steep stairs that are awkward (and possibly dangerous) for the performers to navigate. Lighting designers AJ Paulin & Michael Von Hoffman struggle with the contrasts between light and dark required by the fantasy sequences. Janet Pitcher’s costumes reflect some odd choices for urban going-out dress. Kevin Anthenill’s sound design suffered from quite a few missed cues and problems with the levels mix between band and voices.

Still, it’s a nice first effort, with appealing performers and a 90-minute, no intermission, run time that drags only a little toward the end. First Date plays Thursday – Sunday through May 7, and I hope that its high cuteness quotient keeps the theatre packed.

[box]Performs Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 4:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., Sundays at 2:00 p.m. (no performance on Sunday, April 16), at the Horton Grand Theatre, 444 Fourth Avenue, San Diego, CA 92101. Parking is difficult in the Gaslamp District, but there is a garage across the street from the theatre, and some large pay lots behind the theatre. These lots do fill, so allow plenty of time to park prior to the performance. If the performance is scheduled during a Padres baseball game, consider parking at a Green Line Trolley Station and taking the trolley to either the Convention Center or Gaslamp stations, either of which are a short walk from the theatre. This review was based on the opening night performance, Saturday, April 8.


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