‘Half Time’ at Paper Mill Playhouse. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)
I began to scope out a local gym shortly after moving to Hell’s Kitchen in the late 90s and stumbled across Manhattan Plaza, which offered a discount for those who worked in the arts. The neighborhood had yet to gentrify and it was a bleak eight blocks between my apartment and the basement-level workout facility. The equipment was standard fare so I opted to experiment with some group classes: yoga, jazz dance, Pilates, etc.
I was dumbfounded to discover that most of my fellow participants were far past retirement. The building had long been converted into affordable housing, with a substantial portion of the units set aside for seniors. Ego got the best of me during those first few classes but I quickly realized that my cohorts were not only capable but often times more adept than I was. I can make the same comparison with the hip-hopping seniors that comprise the cast of Half Time, a new musical making its East Coast premiere at Paper Mill Playhouse.
Based on the 2008 film Gotta Dance about the senior citizen hip-hop dance team for the New Jersey Nets, the legendary cast proves that resiliency and determination do not diminish with time. And while creaky joints and occasional memory lapses may be part of growing older, they by no means define one’s spirit or ability to stay engaged in the world.
After aging out of the squad at the ripe old age of 27, Tara (Haven Burton) accepts the job as coach for the new team conceived by marketing director Alison Prager (Tracy Jai Edwards). Tara casts an eclectic group of seniors who are determined to pop and lock their way to center court.
Director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell has assembled an all-star cast including Georgia Engel as the sweet Dorothy with an alter ego that knows how to bust a move; Lilias White as Bea, who isn’t afraid to speak her mind with her granddaughter, who is on the Nets’ millennial team; André De Shields as Ron, the only man on the squad; Donna McKechnie as the only “professional” dancer on the team who briefly appeared in her youth in a short-lived Broadway flop called Bongos at Noon; Lori Tan Chinn as Mae, the least coordinated pint-size member of the bunch, and a handful of other memorable characters.
Gotta Dance could easily turn saccharin in the wrong hands, but the sharply written book by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin walks a fine line that acknowledges the trials and tribulations that come with getting older (the loss of a loved one, physical ailments, social prejudice) while also celebrating the troupe’s humor, independence and fierce determination. The score (music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Nell Benjamin, with additional music by the late Marvin Hamlisch) skips around musical styles with nods to bossa nova, light jazz, and swing with the obligatory hip-hop and rap beats dropping in throughout and culminating in a flashy finale on David Rockwell’s otherwise bleakish set.
Mitchell, whose forthcoming Pretty Woman will mark his 23rd Broadway production (he first appeared in the ensemble of the original production of Barnum), continues to hone his skills as a theatrical storyteller. As expected, Half Time is packed with charming and sharply executed choreography (with the assistance of co-choreographer and associate director Nick Kenkel), but it is the nuanced moments that make Half Time a slam dunk, though theater geeks will flip out over McKechnie’s tribute number to A Chorus Line, Shields’ swing, and Engel’s mystifying swagger.
After a mediocre Broadway season, Half Time offers hope that what’s old is, indeed, new.
Paper Mill Playhouse
22 Brookside Drive
Through July 1, 2018
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on social media at @wexlerwrites.