by Adam Cohen
Aging gracefully and living vitally are the core themes of the amazingly entertaining new musical Half Time, now playing at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Milburn, New Jersey. This meditation on aging and proving people wrong is a dynamic musical with a cast including Broadway legends Lillias White, Andre De Shields and Donna McKechnie as well as Georgia Engle, Nancy Ticotin and Lori Tan Chinn. The cast delivers a compelling, fun, evening.
The story is simple. New Jersey professional basketball team puts together a dance team comprised of dancers over the age of 60 to perform a number during half time at a game. The challenge is they aren’t in their comfort zone of swing, tap, or jazz but hip hop. There’s pressure from management to make the number funny versus allowing the seniors to actually dance. Along the way, the team must bond in order to ensure they can defy expectations.
Aside from the stellar cast, the creators include music from the late (composer of A Chorus Line) Marvin Hamlisch, Matthew Sklar (Elf, The Wedding Singer) and Ester Dean, lyrics by Nell Benjamin (Mean Girls, Legally Blonde) and a book by Bob Martin (Drowsy Chaperone) and Chad Beguelin (Disney’s Alladin and The Wedding Singer). The production is directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots, On Your Feet). The production is based on a true story and a documentary that was produced and directed by Dori Berinstein called Gotta Dance.
Marin and Beguelin’s book is beset with one-liners which in the hands of the game cast largely land. Thankfully, there isn’t one joke about Viagra. They craft characterizations that are fairly broad but again, thanks to the cast all work. The broadness doesn’t create a lot of dramatic tension and a late plot twist largely comes out of character because everyone is too nice. Fine-tuning the characterizations, sharpen the edges and strengthen motivation and the whole thing can really excel for a long run on Broadway.
McKechnie is the former Broadway star who traded footlights for marriage to a doctor. Engel is a kindergarten teacher/rap savant. De Shields is a widower living in his daughter’s basement. White is the grandmother of one of the basketball professional dancers. Ticotin is the sassy Latina who can salsa and has castanets. There’s also a Mary Kay saleswoman (Lenora Nemitz) and a largely blind woman (Kay Walbye). And, of course, there’s an Asian woman – Lori Tan Chinn (Orange is the New Black). They are led in the choreography by recently retired dancer turned coach Tara (Haven Burton) and a team of enthusiastic professional dancers. And frowned upon by the team VP of Marketing (Traci Jai Edwards) who sees her idea careening out of control thanks to too much publicity. Again, they are types with traits, not fully fleshed out characters.
Benjamin’s lyrics and the musical team of Hamlisch and Sklar round things out. The songs are deft, funny and moving. The act two opener “The Waters Rise” – a rueful meditation of loving in the face of illness is powerful, frank (“time is coming to take everything you love”) and sharply delivered by Chinn, who is absolutely wonderful and a sly gem.
Everyone gets a big number. Engle’s presents a fascinating dichotomy of a passionate educator who finds the power and poetry from rap. De Shields gets to show swagger and swing. White’s is a loving mediation on courtship, marriage, parenting, and grandparenting. McKenchie’s act one is a little ham handed ditty on Broadway and aging, while her whole performance would benefit from an edgier, bitchier overall presentation. She’s just too damn nice when more diva would propel her plot twist’s edge. Ticotin kicks up her heels in act two with a younger lover, salsa number…it’s fun. The group turns are harmonic and lively particularly the sardonic “Who Wants to See That” and Act Two’s “New Point of View.”
Kenneth Posner’s lighting is spot on and colorful. David Rockwell’s sets – bleachers that turn into cars, a restaurant, club, rehearsal gym and stadium are functional and vibrant. Gregg Barnes’ costumes are functionally excellent and flattering. Josh Marquette’s hair and wig design is perfect. Technically the show is beautiful.
This is a show you can enjoy with tweens and grandparents. You absolutely root for the dancers to come together as a team and defy all expectations. Unfortunately, the finale has a bombastic sound design that overwhelms the lyrics and dancing. It should be re-thought to send the audience home soaring with good will and happiness.
The cast is wonderful. They handle Mitchell’s choreography with wit and grace. The movement also enhances the characters – where clearly the experience chops of the cast push away the broad sit-com characterizations to create heart and empathy. You root for these seniors to defy expectation, come together, and see the benefits of aging beyond getting a seat on the subway.
Tickets and information at www.papermill.org