East coast premiere of a new musical
Book by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Nell Benjamin
Additional music by Marvin Hamlisch and Ester Dean
Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn
Through July 1
By GWEN OREL
To hear Dorothy, played by Georgia Engel (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show;” “Drowsy Chaperone,” “Everyone Loves Raymond”), raise her hand and say politely, “screw you,” is worth a trip to Paper Mill.
To see Ron, played by André De Shields (“Aint Misbehavin’;” “The Wiz”), in a scene with Dorothy, stomp like a toddler and say he wants to go to Sea World (he shouts it!) is also worth the trip.
“Half Time,” a new musical making its East Coast premiere (it debuted as “Gotta Dance” in Chicago in 2015). Directed by Jerry Mitchell (“Kinky Boots;” “On Your Feet!”), tells the story of a team of senior citizens drafted to dance in the half time of a major New Jersey basketball team.
It is based on the 2008 film “Gotta Dance,” by Dori Bernstein, about a troupe of seniors, the NETSational dancers, who performed with the Nets. Rumor has it that it will make a Broadway bid, as Paper Mill musicals “A Bronx Tale” and “Bandstand” did.
If any show were really aimed to please a multi-generational family, this one is. There are younger dancers young people can relate to, older people that older people can relate to. It’s for grandparents, parents and kids alike. One doesn’t get to see older talent strut their stuff that often, so it’s a delight to see it here.
The older dancers in “Half Time” face a number of hurdles, including dancing hip-hop — not swing, tap or Salsa. Young coach Tara (Haven Burton) “aged out” of being a Cougarette, at 27, and is not thrilled to have this assignment. Alison (Tracy Jai Eddwards) corporate manager and former cougarette herself, threatens to turn the team into a joke, riding around on mobility wagons.
Cue “Screw you.”
And yes, Dorothy is based on a real person, if exaggerated a bit.
It’s not much of a spoiler to say the seniors succeed. Nobody would write a musical about a group of seniors who are humiliated.
The show is a little formulaic, and the music and lyrics forgettable, but the cast is not.
This company is an all-star group of performers who’ve “aged out” of our vision far too much. Some are in their 60s, some are over 80. All are fabulous.
In addition to Engel, whose kindergarten teacher Dorothy, with inner rap girl Dottie, hilariously gets rap and hip-hop (the joke never gets old). And then there’s De Shields, who demonstrates in a song and dance that he’s the “Prince of Swing,” and whose every eye roll gets a laugh. There’s also Donna McKechnie (“A Chorus Line”), playing Joanne, a woman in denial of aging, leaning too hard on her past as a professional dancer.
Lillias White (“The Life,” “Sesame Street”) plays as Bea, a woman who commutes to rehearsal with her Cougarette granddaughter Kendra (Nkeki Obi-Melekwe), trying to shake her granddaughter away from a married Cougar.
Nancy Ticotin, an original member of Ballet Hispanico, as Camilla, is a sizzling 60-something who flaunts her latest boy toy.
Lori Tan Chinn (“M. Butterfly”) as Mae struggles with the routine, and has the most affecting song in the show: “The Waters Rise,” about her husband being swallowed by dementia.
The show is a lot of fun. Burton is a terrific singer, and she makes her journey from feeling put-upon to championing the team compelling.
The dances showcasing the individual talents of the older crew are more inspiring in the thought of them than in the reality, unfortunately.
The show pleases, but rarely surprises.
But there are a few numbers where the Nu Hip Crew and the Cougarettes dance together and you can’t tell who is who. Because the older dancers have the swagger and they have the steps.
And then the show entirely succeeds.
Those numbers give you chills.