NextStop Theatre Company recently premiered its first virtual musical production: First Date by Austin Winsberg (book) and Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner (music and lyrics). Although the show did not have a long Broadway run in 2013, it’s one of the best musicals for theaters looking to mount shows with a smaller cast and Pop/Rock score. NextStop’s film adaptation is smart, funny, and very moving.
The film is directed by Artistic Director Evan Hoffmann and music-directed by Paige Rammelkamp, with performances by Taylor Witt and Alex De Bard as the couple, and multiple supporting characters played by Abby Middleton, Andres Alejandro Ponce, Carl Williams, and Sarah Anne Sillers.
The staging reminded me of the 2002 film adaptation of Chicago, with musical numbers taking place on a stage/theatrical setting rather than the “real life” of the date. This approach works very well for the story and also helped keep actors and crew following safety protocols that were in place at the time of filming.
The show opens with different characters singing “The One” inside the theater with vacant audience seats behind them — a moving visual of how NextStop is adapting to continue bringing quality theater to the region, even if the theater is empty for now. The story continues to the “real world” of Aaron (Taylor Witt) and Casey (Alex De Bard) on their date, where they meet and then tell the audience their “First Impressions” — a great song that showcases the vocal and acting ranges of the two leads.
The date is off to a rocky start and Casey’s phone rings as her flamboyant best friend Reggie (Andres Alejandro Ponce) offers a “Bail Out” for her date. The song is hilarious and catchy while also giving helpful exposition of Casey’s past dating disasters. Ponce’s comedic delivery is spot-on as viewers are both entertained and given important information about Casey’s backstory.
Soon after, Casey’s friend Gabe (Andres Alejandro Ponce) chimes in to remind him to not bring up his ex-fiancée Allison (Abby Middleton) — but she shows up in his head to sing a sultry rose-colored depiction of their past relationship. Abby Middleton’s portrayal of Allison is versatile and fun — from playing the sexy girl next door to exhausted manipulative partner in seconds flat. Her voice is beautiful and emotive as she gives a very humorous delivery.
Another major aspect of a first date is the role played by the internet — as portrayed in the song “The Worldwide Web Is Forever.” Casey and Aaron “Google” each other and it turns into a vaudevillian style number led by Middleton, Ponce, and Williams. It features real photos of the actors as kids, teens, and young adults — a nice personal touch that helps audiences relate to the main characters even more. Soon after, Casey’s exes appear to sing “Can’t Help But Love Me” — it’s the 2000s boy band throwback you never knew you needed. It’s shown as a moody music video going from dramatic to sexy at the drop of a hat — a perfect adaptation for this medium.
Casey’s vision of her ex-boyfriends drives her to put Aaron in the friendzone, so her sister Lauren appears in her mind to confront her about her hard exterior and risk aversion. The conversation leads to Casey’s powerful ballad “Safer,” which is given dramatic staging as she works through her emotions to herself (empty theater audience) rather than the camera (viewing audience). De Bard’s performance is incredibly moving — it’s clear she has the stage presence to mesmerize a packed house. Translating the song to an empty stage while keeping a connection to a virtual audience is a huge feat — one she is able to tackle with solid direction and great talent.
The Waiter gets his own standout feature with “I’d Order Love” as he disappears into a Billy Flynn fantasy. Carl Williams dazzles on screen with charisma as he serenades the audience. The scene bounces between the fantasy staging and the restaurant, and both settings are believable environments for the character to sing his song.
The date turns from friendzone to wingman as Casey tries to think of people she knows for Aaron. The conversation leads to Aaron opening up about his mom, leading to one of the most moving moments of the show. Sarah Anne Siller as Casey’s mom is pitch perfect casting — her haunting and melodious voice is made for the song “Things I Never Said.” It was a surprise to hear a new performer in the show, but it was a very smart choice so that her distinct voice creates heightened attention for the powerful moment. The song is filmed against a black backdrop rather than on a “stage.” Her image fades to black as the song ends — and Aaron is left ending the song just as he started: alone. The scene returns to the restaurant and he responds to Casey, “I don’t want to make the same mistakes my mom did.”
Casey is impressed with Aaron’s openness and vulnerability, and the conversation then goes to his ex Allison. Casey helps Aaron confront Allison in his mind. I loved Taylor Witt’s performance of “You’re a Bitch” where he gets to show his vocal and acting range while confronting the thorn in his side. For an actor to go from “Things I Never Said” to “You’re a Bitch” can be an emotional roller coaster and Witt keeps the audience engaged for the whole ride.
“The Check” is an unexpected and wonderful “Bohemian Rhapsody” moment, made even better in this cinematic medium. Middleton, Ponce, and Williams embody the drama and absurdity of the awkward moment.
Without giving away the ending, I can say for certain that audiences will fall in love with NextStop’s “First Date.” It’s a small show with a big heart and a great example of how theaters can adapt stage productions for at-home viewing.
Taylor Witt / Aaron
Alex De Bard / Casey
Carl Williams / Waiter
Abby Middleton / Allison/Lauren
Andres Alejandro Ponce / Reggie/Gabe
Sarah Anne Sillers / Aaron’s Mother
Evan Hoffmann / Director
Paige Rammelkamp / Music Director
Charles Belt / Director of Photography
Quoc M. Tran / Production Coordinator
Will Wacker / Sound Designer
AnnMarie Castringo / Lighting Designer
Paris Francesca / Costume Designer
Monique Midgette / Casting Director
Nicole Maneffa / COVID-19 Compliance Manager
Paige Rammelkamp / Keyboard
Theresa Arnold / Bass
Tyler Golsen / Drums
Rick Peralta / Guitar