The feel-anxious comedy of First Date, at the Mayfield. A review

Ron Pederson and Julia McLellan in First Date, Mayfield Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson.

By Liz Nicholls,

“Are you ever gonna find The One?” wonders the rousing opening number of First Date, the funny, sweetly unassuming little romantic comedy musical that opened Friday at the Mayfield Dinner Theatre. A chorus tots up rather hilariously the dating fiascos built into long odds of finding a mate in the big city (or, for that matter, on Google).

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Actually, the title of this one-act 2013 Broadway musical (book by Austin Winsberg, music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner) might be considered a bit of a spoiler. When Aaron Met Casey — under a New York skyline in a bistro elegantly designed by Ivan Brozik and set in motion by Matt Schuurman’s projections — is a classic Blind Date. With all the trepidation and hope, in varying percentages, that implies. 

We’ve all undergone them (consult your memory bank of embarrassing encounters). Blind dates unfold in real time that can either fly by in a twinkling, or seem to be standing still, leaving you stranded on the shoals of eternity. They’re a test of fortitude that can leave you with a burning desire to strangle the ‘well-meaning’ person who set you up for humiliation. Or they’re a vindication of eternal celibacy. OR … they’re the moment when you can actually glimpse a horizon, the end of the lonely, romantically under-hefted urban life in solitary.

Apparent incompatibility is the well-trod turf for romantic comedy. And it’s the playground for an entirely charming, comically inventive, strong-voiced seven-actor cast in this enjoyable Kate Ryan production. They’re led by Ron Pederson and Julia McLellan, whose frictions as Aaron and Casey are set forth in bold strokes at the outset. And they arrive on blind date night surrounded by their human “baggage,” the ex’s, the relatives, the friends who constitute their inner critics, annotating in song and dance their unwelcome advice. 

Aaron (Pederson), a Mr. Nice Guy nebbish, arrives first — a nervous wreck of a guy overdressed in a suit and tie, and obviously a novice to the dating scene. “Beer? Vodka? Xanax?” asks the waiter (Jason Hardwick). Making a welcome return to Edmonton theatre, Pederson is very funny, a veritable human pretzel of anxiety. “What exactly are we dealing with here?” asks Casey (McLellan), who consults with the Waiter while doing a reconnoitre of the twitchy guy sitting by himself at a bar table. There he is, oh no, putting in eye drops, confirming her worst fears for the date to come.

She’s a boho chick, an intimidatingly artsy tough cookie in leather, sexy red satin, and boots (costumes by Brozic). “She’s kinda indie and pretty hot, and a lot like all the things I’m not,” Aaron sings in First Impressions, one of the musical’s best. For her part in that song, Casey thinks “He’s a bit annoying/ And overdressed/ He’s got the kinda vibe that says ‘Look at me I’m stressed’.” The lyrics by Zachary and Weiner are witty (in a way the music, less distinctive, isn’t).  

The cast of First Date, Mayfield Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson

The date has been set up by Casey’s sister (Patricia Zentilli) who’s on hand in Casey’s mind with pep talks at every impasse. The getting-to-know-you phase is a veritable minefield into which — every time tensions seem to ease — Aaron inevitably puts his foot and trips. He’s an investment banker; she’s a photographer who works in an art gallery. To break the ice she calls him playfully a BDV, a blind date virgin. Since she admits to a history of serial blind dating, he tries to be funny and calls her a BDS, a blind date slut. And you just wince for him.  “Too soon, right?….” 

In The Awkward Pause, the chorus details dramatically all the things they’d rather be doing, including eating a plate of glass, than living through this moment. It’s the theme song for blind dating world-wide. 

Pederson and McLellan, who have captivating chemistry (and real musical theatre chops), inhabit characters who get on each other’s nerves. These are performances of real charm. Pederson has an expert  comic physicality that stands him in good stead as the wired schlemiel and a self-sabotage expert, a square in desperation mode. McLellan’s performance as the freer, sparkier, more hostile spirit with commitment issues, quick to be exasperated, is vivid and fun too.

They’re conceptual opposites. And their pasts come to life in opposing scenes. Aaron’s, triggered by the offhand revelation that Casey isn’t Jewish, takes on an amusing sort of Fiddler-esque dance number in which his late grandmother deplores his choice of girl, oy oy oy goy goy goy. Casey’s is a selection of the “bad boys” to whom she’s normally attracted, tattooed rockers and stoners. 

Meanwhile Aaron is haunted by an ex (Sarah Dowling) who dumped him at the altar, and frantic date coaching from his best friend (Michael Cox) exhorting him to be less wimpy, and never ever, on god’s green earth, to mention the ex. Casey’s phone keeps going off – recurring Bailout Song calls from her gay best friend (Robbie Towns), her personal insurance against the intolerable. She’s distracted by pep talk visitations  and reproaches by her sister (Zentilli), who’s all about identifying goals and pursuing them.

All the supporting characters are amusingly realized in specific comic performances; Ryan’s cast is excellent. As the droll and knowing server Jason Hardwick gets a highlight dance number (with tap!), that reinforces the old truism that every waiter in New York is just biding his time, waiting for the call. And there’s a galvanizing number in which, encouraged by Casey, Aaron finally exorcises the ghost of his ball-busting, manipulative ex. Casey and the audience cheered him on. 

Ryan’s production charts smartly the gradual two-steps-forward-one-back progress into honest exchanges upon which the ritual of dating is built. It’s only when First Date tries a bit too hard to land on sentiment — a number in which Aaron reveals his late mother’s regrets — that it backfires.  

You might want to call First Date is a retro comic tango of stock characters. And you wouldn’t be wrong. But the pleasure of it, in this production, is the way a first-rate cast, led by Pederson and McLellan, bursts right out of the time-honoured constraints. You want the characters to succeed and find love. You really do. 

Which is a romantic way to spend an evening in the theatre. Give yourself a chance to smile. 


First Date

Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre

Written by: Austin Winsberg (book) and Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner (music and lyrics)

Directed by: Kate Ryan

Starring: Julia McLellan, Ron Pederson, Michael Cox, Sarah Dowling, Jason Hardwick, Robbie Towns, Patricia Zentilli

Running: through March 26 

Tickets:, 780-483-4051


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