Director Kenny Howard discusses his 'First Date,' opening at the Abbey Thursday

Michael Knight and Kellie Rhianne in ‘First Date '
Michael Knight and Kellie Rhianne in ‘First Date ' Photo by Patty Wolfe

There are few things as awkward as being introduced to the potential love of your life while the shadow of another woman is hovering over your head like a storm cloud. So it's appropriately ironic that I interviewed director Kenny Howard about First Date: The Musical on the eve of Hurricane Irma's arrival on our shores. While most of us were scrambling to stock up on hurricane supplies and practicing our "hunker down" positions, Howard was trying to accelerate his latest show's load-in at the Abbey, in hopes of still opening on schedule Thursday night, Sept. 14.

If this is the first time you're hearing of First Date, which had a five-month Broadway run in 2013, you're not alone; Howard himself was unaware of Austin Winsberg's play (with music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner) until Generation Productions' Aaron Safer brought it him. "We've always talked about shows that would be a good fit for the Abbey, like Cabaret was," Howard says. "If there's a setting that we can incorporate the look and feel of the Abbey into, that's of interest."

Even if the show's title wasn't already familiar to you, the names of First Date's composers should ring a bell for theme park fans. Zachary and Weiner are Disney fan favorites, having been tapped to score both the charming Twice Charmed Cinderella sequel for Disney Cruise Line and the lauded musical episode of ABC's Once Upon a Time. If Universal is more your style, Zachary and Weiner also wrote the swinging Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees show inside Diagon Alley at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

One person who does have prior experience with Zachary and Weiner's work is actress Kellie Rhianne. She stars in First Date as Casey, a single girl in the city looking to settle down with a nice guy after a string of bad boys. A relative newcomer to Orlando's theater scene, Rhianne performs with Universal's Celestina Warbeck show and "has pipes for days," according to Howard.

Her nebbishy beau, Aaron, is played by Michael Knight, who wrote the surreal satire Now With Chikin for the 2017 Orlando Fringe. "I hadn't seen him act," Howard admits, but explains that he was drawn to Knight's "nervous, somewhat neurotic, self-deprecating" sense of humor, adding, "He's really got a handle on the rhythm of the piece."

Rhianne and Knight are aided by an ensemble that includes Blake Aburn as Casey's gay BFF, Jerry Jobe Jr. as "the bad angel on Casey's shoulder" and Alexandria Grace Williams as Aaron's intrusive ex. In addition, First Date's restaurant setting gave Howard the opportunity to adapt the Abbey for an in-the-round staging, with a quartet of dancers (Theresa Hanson, Jordan Little, Mari Devi Haze and Chelsea Hupalowsky) embedded among the patrons. "They don't even make themselves known until [about] halfway through the show, so you just think you're sitting with other patrons next to you, until they're climbing on tables and dancing."

This immersive innovation, though not an element of the original Broadway staging, is a perfect fit for the show, according to co-composer Zachary, who says, "When we first started writing First Date, one aspect we were really excited about was the voyeuristic quality of the show. Everyone has had the experience of being out at a restaurant and overhearing a conversation at another table.

"It got us thinking how cool it would be if the show was staged in an immersive environment – maybe even an actual café or bar – so the audience could feel like they're listening in on those delightfully awkward 'first date' moments. While we never got to try out the idea ourselves, we're beyond thrilled that, since Broadway, productions of First Date like the one at the Abbey have been so creative in staging the show and finding clever ways of thrusting us into the action of Aaron and Casey's emotional roller coaster of an evening."

Speaking of emotional roller coasters, many Orlando arts events were being rescheduled ahead of Hurricane Irma as we went to press, but Howard was still cautiously optimistic for First Date's debut when we spoke. "I don't think we're going to cancel opening because hopefully a week will have gone by," he said. "If it's as bad with as much damage as Charley, we'll probably rethink our opening weekend."

Either way, Howard won't be getting a break, because his October production of Hand to God at the Dr. Phillips Center begins rehearsals just three days after First Date opens. And his plans after that?

"I hope to disappear for a week."

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