Entertainment » Theatre

Half Time

by Rob Urbinati
Thursday Jun 28, 2018
The cast of "Half Time" at the Paper Mill Playhouse through July 1.
The cast of "Half Time" at the Paper Mill Playhouse through July 1.  

In recent years, Milburn, New Jersey has become what New Haven and Philadelphia were in the 1930s and 40s, and Paper Mill Playhouse is one of the major venues for Broadway-hopeful musicals. A few of the theatre's productions have made it to NYC. Nearly all have been based on films ("A Bronx Tale," "Newsies," "Honeymoon in Vegas" and "The Sting") and one on a television series ("The Honeymooners"). Productions at Paper Mill play to packed houses, and many of the subscribers are enthusiastic seniors - the perfect audience for "Half Time."

The musical is based on the Dori Berinstein's 2008 documentary, "Gotta Dance." As a promotional gimmick, the New Jersey Cougars invite senior citizens to audition for a "second squad" of half-time entertainers who will be known as Nifty Shades of Gray and supplement the outrageously dexterous Cougarettes. In this sweet, slight, doggedly uplifting show, age is just a number - a musical number.

There's not much plot, particularly in Act One. The characters are sketched in through interviews with an offstage announcer and assigned a quirk. Everyone who auditions, curiously, makes the team. Tara, (the feisty Haven Burton) who was aged out of the Cougarettes when she turned 27, is tasked with whipping the motley troupe into shape. Frustrated by Nifty Shades of Gray's modest abilities, she convinces them - and herself - that it doesn't matter how well they dance - they can get by with "Swagger," the fun first act finale. And when Tara's boss (Traci Jai Edwards), a ruthless management type in spike heels, gives up on the seniors and devises a scheme to save face with a stunt that would mock them, Tara and the NIfties fight back, to show the boss who's boss.

Her cohorts are shocked to discover they'll need to learn hip-hop, but Georgia Engel as Dottie - an ever-so-slight variation on her character on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and as dotty as ever - couldn't be happier. She has hip-hop in her soul, knows Biggie from Tupac, and can bust a move. She can't walk without a cane, but she dances just fine without one.

Donna McKechnie in "Half Time."  

The eclectic score - music by Matthew Sklar and lyrics by Nell Benjamin, with additional music by Marvin Hamlisch - includes lightweight hip-hop, swing, salsa and Broadway belt numbers, under Charlie Alterman's musical direction. The choreography by director Jerry Mitchell and co-choreographer Nick Kenkel, with a few vivid exceptions, is understated. Nifty Shades of Gray's dance routines are hemmed in by the story, which requires the squad to be unskilled, but not poke fun at them for that. Consequently, the dances in the first act are pleasant but lack variety.

The plot clicks into gear in Act Two, and the show livens up. Joanne, a youthful Donna McKechnie, bears a striking resemblance to Cassie, her character in "A Chorus Line." To underline the connection, she's given a defiant song and solo dance in front of a wall of mirrors. As Mae, Lori Tann Chin, a gifted comedienne, provides some of the show's broadest, biggest laughs. She can't remember any of the moves, which irritates Joanne, who's been on Broadway and takes her work seriously. Joanne's selfishness nearly tears the squad apart, but Mae's problems are deeper - her husband has Alzheimer's, subtly revealed in "The Waters Rise," a plaintive ballad with honest, sophisticated lyrics. Joanne's ruthlessness is explained when a secret she's been harboring is revealed, and all is forgiven in time for the big finale, "Gotta Get Up," where the squad is not only coordinated and resplendent in numbered jerseys displaying their ages.

The book by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin could be funnier and more involving, with richer characters and a less lopsided plot. Too often, the challenges of aging are confronted with inspirational slogans, like "I'm still here and I'm proud!" The show is also replete with stereotyped senior jokes. Some land better than others. The joy in "Half Time" is watching the tried and tested cast of pros - a real "geriatric flash mob" - bring the material to life.

As the outspoken Bea, Lilias White gets a lift to and from rehearsals by her granddaughter Kendra (Nkei Obi-Melekwe), a proud-minded Cougarette. Before she finally softens, Kendra is forced to hear multiple reprises of "Princess," as Bea dispenses wisdom, needling the girl she loves to respect herself.

Andre De Shields, a widower estranged from his daughter and eager to kindle a relationship with his grandson, is a suave and cunning presence as Ron, the "Prince of Swing." He and Dottie bond, and in one of the show's oddest moments, he gives her a gift - a glittering "pimp cane." Nancy Ticotin as Camilla flaunts her formidable stuff in the vigorous, Latin-flavored number, "┬┐Como No?" and also flaunts another kind of number - her hunky, twenty-something boyfriend.

David Rockwell's simple set resembles a gymnasium, with bleachers rearranged for various locations, including Mae's 1950's poodle skirt party decorated with Chinese lanterns, and Hell Club, where the seniors let off steam. The costumes by Gregg Barnes are playful, and Kenneth Posner's lighting finds opportunities for big, Broadway flourishes.

Garrett Turner and Alexander Aguilar are nimble dancers, and versatile in a variety of roles, and the four Cougarettes' dynamic dance routines are knockouts. But in "Half Time," it's the seniors who take center court. As camaraderie develops and stardom is reached, the aging characters - and the veteran actors who portray them - prove that life isn't over when you're 60-plus. It's only "Half Time."

"Half Time" continues through July 1 at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ. For more information, visit the Paper Mill Playhouse website.


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