Half Time, the Broadway-bound musical that opened at Paper Mill last night, is reminiscent of A Chorus Linefor seniors, Bring It On and Ballroom.Based on Dori Berinstein’s 2008 documentary, “Gotta Dance,” we learn about the NBA’s first senior hip-hop dance team, who really had no professional dance training, but went on to win the hearts of their fans. This show with a message misses some key moments, though it has the potential for a Broadway hit. In a strange way, Half Time doesn’t really kick in until the midway point. That is because we never really get to know these nine geriatric wannabe performers until after they have already made the team. The show is missing the “Gee I hope I get it” beginning. We need to be invested in these people, who may be of a certain age but have not given up on life, and it needs to start at the audition.
Directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots) with spirit, and co-choreography by Nick Kenkel, with a book by Chad Beguelin and Bob Martin, score by Nell Benjamin (lyrics) and Matthew Skylar (music), with additional music by the late Marvin Hamlisch and Ester Dean, this underdog show will leave a smile on your face by the end.
This talented troupe of television and stage veterans has been nicknamed “Nifty Shades of Grey,” with a running gag of “It sounds like a bunch of seniors dressed in leather, spanking each other.” We find out that the marketing director (Kimberlee Garris) for the “New Jersey Cougars” – the regular dance team – has decided seniors would be a good PR angle. Meet Dorothy/Dottie (“Mary Tyler Moore Show” vet, the surprisingly good Georgia Engel), a kindergarten teacher by day, but by night has a taste for rap. Ron (The Wiz‘s smooth Andre De Shields), “The Prince of Swing”, is a reclusive widower who wants to take his grandson to Sea World but needs to prove himself to his uncaring daughter in law. Bea (the soulful Lillias White, The Life) wants her granddaughter, Kendra (Nkeki Obi-Melekwe), a current dance squad member, to honor herself and stop running around with her married basketball boyfriend. Joanne (A Chorus Line‘sgraceful Donna McKechnie) gave up her one-show Broadway career for her doctor husband and now that he has left her for a younger woman, she wants her moment in the sun returned, no matter the cost. Camilla (the seriously fabulous Nancy Ticotin, “Orange is the New Black”) is a salsa dancer with a boyfriend half her age, who is not a fan of being “age appropriate.” Her samba/salsa infused “Como No” dance solo is the stand out of the night. Then there is Mae (the perky Lori Tan Chinn, “Orange is the New Black”), whose dancing is not so much on point, but brings joy and heart to the show as she deals with her husband’s Alzheimers in the wonderful “The Waters Rise.”
The remaining team members are Fran (Lenora Nemetz), a Mary Kay saleswoman hoping to expand her business; Muriel (Kay Walbye) who is insecure about losing her senses, so she’d rather be blind than wear her glasses; and Estelle (Madeleine Doherty) who is the least fleshed out of the crew.
After three weeks of intensive training these seniors aren’t making the grade and now the PR team wants to make a joke out of them. Not having it is Tara (the wonderful Haven Burton), their coach, who at just 27, has also been aged out of being a cheerleader. She has been reduced to coaching or face unemployment.
Five-time Tony Award-nominee, David Rockwell provides the scenic design. Costumes are from Tony Award-winner, Gregg Barnes. Jason Lee Courson’s background projection design impressed, and Tony Award-winner Kenneth Posner delivers a show- stopping lighting design.
Loosely based on the lives and journey of the real team, this show fictionalizes many details. Like the hard-working old-timers, this show has been around for at least 10 years, with its last incarnation in 2015 billed in Chicago as Gotta Dance.
Half Time: Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ until July 1 papermill.org/show/half-time