Georgia Engel, André De Shields, Lillias White, and Donna McKechnie in Half Time East Coast Premiere at Paper Mill Playhouse
By: Ellis Nassour
June 14, 2018 – There’re enough Tony winners among the creative team in the East Coast premiere of Jerry Mitchell’s production of the musical Half Time for you to expect a championship game. The adaptation of Dori Berinstein’s 2008 documentary Gotta Dance, about New Jersey seniors creating a hip-hop squad for the local team, plays at the Paper Mill Playhouse (Millburn, NJ) through July 1. While things don’t quite gel to equal the sum of their parts, there are incredibly standout parts. With a score by Matthew Sklar (music) and Nell Benjamin (lyrics) and book by Bob Martin (Drowsy Chaperone) and Chad Beguelin (Aladdin; The Wedding Singer), it dribbles along at TV-sit-com level until the momentum picks up when a couple of players shoot winning hoops.
The show, where the seniors defy the odds to disprove the axiom “No one said getting old is easy” and that age is just a number, had changes since its 2015 Chicago premiere, then-titled Gotta Dance, also helmed by Mitchell. He’s kept the lead cast mostly intact. As with any show, no matter how strong the book and music are, great casting choices make it stronger. He’s blessed to have five-time Emmy-nominated Georgia Engel and Tony and Obie-winning stage veteran André De Shields as his MVPs.
Tony nominated Sklar (Elf) and Olivier and Tony nominated Benjamin (Legally Blonde) joined the team when EGOT (Emmy, Grammy Oscar, Tony) and Pulitzer Prize winner Marvin Hamlisch died in 2012. Three of his tunes remain. They and two from the new players add incalculable gloss.
Half-Time is very much an ensemble show. Returning in addition to Engel and De Shields are Tony winning belter Lillias White, Haven Burton, Lori Tan Chin, Nancy Ticotin, Madeline Doherty, Tracy Jai Edwards, Lenora Nemetz, and Kay Walbye. Replacing popular TV star Stefanie Powers from Chicago is Donna McKechnie.
The inspiration for the musical is literally ripped out of the headlines – or, in this case, a gossip column. Four-time Tony-winning producer Berinstein (2012 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf revival, Thoroughly Modern Millie, among others) saw an item in a 2006 Cindy Adams New York Post column announcing the New Jersey Nets were holding an audition for the first-ever N.B.A. senior hip-hop squad. She raced there, camera in hand. That led her to produce the 2008 indie film Gotta Dance.
In Half Time, reminiscent of the English import of Richard Harris’ 1987 play with songs, Stepping Out, there are nine seniors and one man. Here, the team is the New Jersey Cougars, choreographed/coached by Tara (Burton). The 60-year-old plus dance hopefuls – all truly amazing cougars, arrive thinking they’re up for tap and ballroom and find themselves in a rude awakening. Things get off to an even worse than bad start for the Nifty Shades of Grey, until the revelation that mild-mannered kindergarten teacher Dorothy, portrayed by extraordinary scene-stealer Engel [who turns 70 next month], who can’t walk without a cane is a hip-hop aficionado spouting lyrics from rappers Topac, Run DMC, 50 Cent, and Eminem. On the dance floor, she gets her grove on as if she’s a high-energy teenager. In less than three weeks they’re to bust their moves center court in front of 20,000 fans. As things start to shape up there are petty jealousies, granddaughter marital advice from sassy “grandma” Bea (White) who’s knows how to work it and twerk it, a superiority attitude from former professional dancer (McKechnie) who’s hiding a secret, wise-cracking one-liners courtesy of the diminutive Mae (Chinn), and hot salsa from Camilla (Ticotin) who brandishes a sexy French-kissing boy toy. They’re balanced by a smooth-talking widower (De Shields) known as “the Prince of Swing” in spite of his aching back. They put petty attitudes and differences aside and finally bond in solidarity – not to mention romance, defy the odds, and become “We seniors are the world!” champions with no end-game in sight.
There really wouldn’t be much here except for Engel and De Shields. She has a winning Hamlisch reverie in “Dorothy/Dottie,” where she reveals that the woman on the dance floor isn’t her/Dorothy but her hip-hop alter ego Dottie. She sings “Dor’thy’s not bold … She’s got nothing to say. Neat appearance and good manners”; but as Dottie, when the music “pulses through her body, bass and reverb start to shake … she feels something inside her wake.” And it’s on the dance floor where she literally walks off with the show. De Shields has long been known as a smooth-talker with amazing stage swagger. He delivers both towards the end of Act One in the Hamlisch charmer “The Prince of Swing,” where he reveals how one dance changed his life and got him a wife. He and Engel spot some dazzling ballroom moves during a few stanzas of “There You Are,” which Hamlisch incorporated into the number. They not only stop the show, they bring the house down.
White delivers brassy, sassy advice to her granddaughter in the three-part “Princess” and Ticotin and her boy toy Fernando (Alexander Agular) deliver hot Salsa in “Como No.” Then, there’s the Act Two moment when set designer David Rockwell’s back wall segues into panels of mirrors and Cassie, that is Joanne (McKechnie), delivers a solo dance in “Too Good for This” that’s three degrees of separation from her Tony-winning moment in A Chorus Line.
Music director and arranger is Tony-winner Charlie Alterman (Pippin revival, Next to Normal), with orchestrations by Tony-winner Larry Hochman (Book of Mormon), and dance arrangements by Kenny Seymour. Two-time Tony winner Mitchell (Kinky Boots) choreographed and directed, but credits co-choreographer Nick Kenkel with the hip-hop moves accompanying Sklar’s pulsating dance music. Half Time is produced in association with Berinstein and Bill Damaschke. The production is also made possible with support from Bank of America and season sponsor Investors Bank.
Tickets for Half Time at Paper Mill Playhouse (22 Brookside Drive) are $34 – $137, and available at the box office, online at www.PaperMill.org, or by calling (973) 376-4343. Groups of 10 or more receive up to a 40% discount (973) 315-168). Students: $23 rush tickets at box office or by phone day of performance. For performance schedules, visit www.papermill.org. Mark S. Hoebee is Paper Mill’s producing artistic director and Todd Schmidt is managing director.
Special events at Half Time
June 24 and 30, 1:30 P.M.: Audio-described performances. Prior to the performances at noon, there’ll be sensory seminars, offering patrons with vision loss to hear a live, in-depth description of the show’s production elements and hands-on interaction with key sets, props, and costumes.
June 30: Q&A with the cast, following the matinee.
July 1, 7 P.M.: a sign-interpreted and open-captioned performance.