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Fresh, more intimate 'First Date' to debut in Pittsburgh

| Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016, 1:57 p.m.
Caroline Nicolian and Luke Halferty star in the CLO Cabaret production of 'First Date.'
Laura Petrilla for Pittsburgh CLO
Caroline Nicolian and Luke Halferty star in the CLO Cabaret production of 'First Date.'

When Aaron and Casey meet for their blind date, they are not alone.

They have each brought along all those hopes, disappointments and expectations gathered from previous relationships, as well as the well-meant cautionary advice of their relatives, concerned co-workers and therapists.

That's the premise behind the small musical “First Date,” which the CLO Cabaret is staging Feb. 4 to April 24 at the Cabaret at Theater Square, Downtown.

Broken-hearted exes, Grandma Ida and even their potential future son chime in as this supposedly casual, “it's just drinks” encounter turns into a high-stakes dinner.

“The two are on a date. But the others are the voices of their exes, relatives and best friends that they hear in their heads,” says composer and lyricist Michael Weiner who wrote the score with Alan Zachary. “I thought it would be fun theatrically.”

The idea for the musical began as a conversation between Zachary, Weiner and Austin Winsberg, who wrote the musical's script.

“This show emerged because we three were reminiscing about our own bad dates and started thinking, ‘Why not write something about this,' ” Weiner says.

The show debuted in 2012 with a sold-out run at Seattle's 5th Avenue/ACT Theatres. A year later, it opened at the Longacre Theatre on Broadway where it ran for 174 performances.

Since then, it has had productions in Japan, Mexico and Italy, some of which Weiner attended. “It was very illuminating to see how different cultures respond to different jokes,” he says.

While those shows were successful, Zachary, Weiner and Winsberg saw ways the show could be revised and improved.

“Broadway gave us a sense of what worked and what didn't,” Weiner says. “What's exciting about Pittsburgh is that we are doing a brand-new version.”

Two actors were eliminated and their roles reassigned.

Now, three actors — David Toole, Maggie Carr and Connor McCanlus — play 11 of the musical's characters while Luke Halferty and Caroline Nicolian play the potential couple Aaron and Casey.

Two new songs will make their debut in Pittsburgh.

“Two brand-new songs out of (a score of) 13 is a lot,” Weiner says.

Instead of the proscenium staging of earlier productions, the CLO Cabaret version is experimenting with a thrust-stage arrangement that places the audience at tables that surround Aaron and Casey's table on three sides.

“In Pittsburgh, in this space, it seems ideal. We loved the idea of doing it in an immersive environment — in a cafe or bar surrounding the actors,” Zachary says.

“The actors will be at tables amongst the audience. The idea is you are in the restaurant where (Aaron and Casey) are on a date. It's similar to that experience we have all been in: You're in a restaurant and can't help but overhear what's going on (at another table).”

When Zachary, Weiner and Winsberg created “First Date,” they thought their audience would be people who, like them, were in their 30s.

“We thought, ‘Those people will get it,' ” Zachary says. “But we discovered everyone from those who are 18 to those in their 80s got it. Everyone is dating.”

Alice Carter is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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