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Sunday, April 1, 2012 - Page updated at 05:30 a.m.

Theater review
At ACT Theatre: A 'First Date' that really clicks

By Misha Berson
Seattle Times theater critic

THEATER REVIEW |

Attending the world premiere of a new musical is rather like going out on a blind date. You don't know what you're getting into.

Will you click with this stranger, or have little in common with him/her? Be bored stiff, or entranced?

The fix-up portrayed in the delightful new musical "First Date" at ACT Theatre isn't an instant love connection.

But this crowd-pleasing show attracts the audience from the moment nervous, nebbishy Aaron (Eric Ankrim) enters a bistro to meet sleek, skeptical Casey (Kelly Karbacz).

The best coproduction by ACT and 5th Avenue Theatre up to now, "First Date" has the smart, frisky appeal of a choice episode of "Sex and the City" — minus the bed-hopping. (Karbacz even resembles that TV rom-com's star, Sarah Jessica Parker.)

Yet this is very much a musical, up to date in the hilarious zingers "Gossip Girl" writer-producer Austin Winsberg peppers the script with, and in the clever lyrics and rapping in the zesty score by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner.

As funny and fresh as the quips about social media, Newt Gingrich, et al, are, "First Date" also injects warmth and psychological insight into what adults in their late 30s longing for love go through to find it.

The show has a dandy way of exposing the psychic process, with a five-person chorus of diners who nimbly morph into the couple's nagging "inner critics."

They represent the emotional baggage Casey and Aaron bring to the date, the fears and self-defeating impulses triggered by this initially awkward matchup.

Specters of her bad-boy ex-boyfriends (played with macho brio by Brandon O'Neill and Benjamin Harris) try to entice Casey away from "nice guy" Aaron, in the hot number "That's Why You Love Me."

The uproarious "The Girl for You" has Aaron's Jewish ancestors revolting at the idea their boychik might wed a shiksa (non-Jew).

Friends, a shrink and the spirits of Facebook, Twitter and Google also intrude. So do, inevitably, parents. (And, in too-caricatured a fashion, Casey's gay pal.) As a song lyric laments, "It's a miracle people ever get together."

The darker neuroses may be weighted a tad too much toward Casey, who in Karbacz's strong turn is a cynical commitment-phobe after too many romantic disasters.

In contrast, Aaron is remarkably unjaded — for a successful investment banker whose ex (Vicki Noon) ditched him at the altar.

Ankrim is a total hoot as this endearingly insecure square whose foot keeps popping into his mouth, and who ties himself in knots over what drink to order.

After his lead role in 5th Avenue's "Oklahoma!," Ankrim shows here he's not just a fine singer, but a marvelous physical and verbal comedian.

Musically, the pop-flavored tunes are fairly generic. But lyrically, they are terrific — snappy and irreverent in the main, yet thoughtful in a couple of introspective ballads, and the Sinatra-esque "I'll Order Romance" (sung with joyful élan by Richard Gray).

It's overdue, and essential, to praise Bill Berry's crisp direction, and Josh Prince's perfectly timed musical staging.

And the first-rate chorus/ensemble (which also includes Billie Wildrick) aces every challenge "First Date" throws at them.

It's another mark in the show's favor that it contains many swings of emotion, and an ending that's more about new beginnings than happy-ever-afters. This is, after all, only a first date — but a very promising one.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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