Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey / Delaware Valley

Half Time
Paper Mill Playhouse
Review by Bob Rendell


The Cast of Half Time
Photo by Jerry Dalia
While director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell's lively production of the hopefully Broadway-bound Half Time provides considerable diversion, it is wildly uneven over the course of the two and a half hours which it now struts on the Paper Mill stage. Its strengths and weaknesses are closely intertwined. Thus, it will be quite a task separating the wheat from the chaff. Given the potential for popular success of its up-beat, feel good story, the creative strengths which it already possesses, and the stellar performances of, in the eyes of any Broadway buff, an iconic cast, it is an effort worth undertaking.

Half Time is based on Dori Berinstein's 2009 documentary movie Gotta Dance, which depicts the formation, development, and first performances of the NETsationals, a hip-hop dance team composed of 10 women and one man, all sixty years old or older, who were recruited at open auditions to perform at halftime of 2006-2007 NBA New Jersey Nets games. The musical plays out over the course of three weeks, from the selection of the seniors (eight female, one male) for the dance team through their initial half-time performance.

In this fictionalized story, the basketball team is identified as the New Jersey Cougars, and the seniors augment an existing bevy of youthful hip-hop dancing female cheerleaders known as the Cougarettes. The senior citizen team is initially named Fifty Shades of Grey. While there is humor in the name, it is an example of a problem which plagues this production. For Half Time makes the mistake of caricaturing the newly hired seniors. Initially and for most of the first act, several of the seniors are shown to be so incompetent that it is strikingly unbelievable that they would ever have been selected from among "over 150" auditionees. Muriel (Kay Walbye) is helplessly "legally blind"; the hobbled Dorothy (Georgia Engel) cannot walk without a cane; and Mae (Lori Tam Chinn) is a ditz who blissfully is oblivious to any dance instructions. This approach makes it appear that the New Jersey Cougars, and correspondingly, the Half Time creative team, are out to milk laughs from seniors' limitations by ignoring the reality that many seniors can still "cut a rug" on the dance floor.

Half Time's ageist introduction of these successful auditionees sets the tone for the lack of consequential conflict which enervates much of the first act. The more focused and dramatic second act manages to provide a considerable measure of interest and entertainment.

On its plus side, the uneven book by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin does in time engage our interest in the protagonists and their plight.

Matthew Sklar is the principal composer, although the score includes the music for three songs which were completed by Marvin Hamlisch before his passing. The cleverly rhymed, felicitous lyrics are by Nell Benjamin. Mitchell has produced a lively, well-acted, -sung, and -danced production.

Among Half Time's highlights are:

  • The scene in which Tara tries to convince the seniors that they can dance hip-hop, in which she gives a strong exegesis on hip-hop as being part of a cultural and artistic movement which voiceless, neglected, powerless and angry young people developed in order to express themselves and be heard. She adds that old people are often in the same position and should be able to relate to the emotional power of hip-hop. The seniors team eats this up and, following the newly revealed Dottie (Dorothy's alter ego), they all get their hip-hop dancing together for the first time. This may be a stretch, and it ignores some of the less savory elements of hip-hop culture, but it is well argued, and engaging and honorably seeks to find a middle ground to unite diverse groups culturally.
  • A triptych of scenes spaced throughout the rehearsal period which depict senior team member Bea (Lillias White) being driven home from rehearsals by her reluctant Cougarette granddaughter Kendra (Nkeki Obi-Melekwe). These scenes form a self-contained musical play built around the restoration of a young woman's understanding of and love for her caring grandmother and three story-laden sections of the richly textured song Princess. Obi-Melekwe and Garrett Turner, who appears in the third scene, make solid contributions, but the triptych belongs to Lillias White, who sings and performs as strongly and thrillingly as ever.

  • André De Shields brings his smooth, silky dancer's grace, humor, warmth, and a seducer's charm to his portrayal of Ron, who is simultaneously a loving grandfather and a practiced chick magnet. There is a magic moment just prior to the finale when De Shields and Donna McKechnie momentarily step out of character and acknowledge one another's iconic past.

Other highlights must be noted with related missteps:

  • Donna McKechnie, looking impossibly fresh and youthful, and dancing and singing with power and grace, delights with her strong talents and embracing stage persona. McKechnie and director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell manage to override the grain of the context to evoke the feel and memory of the pure love of performing which made us fall in love with McKechnie in A Chorus Line. This is an impressive accomplishment, for the role of Joanne is neither convincing nor attractive. Joanne initially seems intelligent and sensitive. However, at some point, she concludes that performing as part of a mediocre, amateur seniors' hip-hop, halftime performing team will make her the star she never was, and then permits this belief to cause her to contemptuously abuse another team member.

  • Georgia Engel's charm and stage savvy is on display throughout, most particularly in Dorothy's showcase number "Dorothy/Dottie." However, the concept of "Dorothy/Dottie" doesn't fit comfortably. You see, Dorothy has a secret. Although she is a strict, old fashioned, cane dependent teacher by day, when night falls, she listens to hip-hop music. "It is angry, loud and vulgar/ But it pulses through her body/ Bass and reverb start to shake," and bubbling up from inside her comes her alter ego Dottie, who can sharply and snappily make all the right hip-hop moves and has no use for a cane. No matter how one chooses to view Dorothy's metamorphosis—metaphor, magic realism, the effect of adrenaline or hooey—its conceit is a bridge too far for a down to earth musical which purports to celebrate real-life seniors.

Lori Tann Chin's ditzy Mae is delightful and adorable. There is stereotyping in both writing and performance here as Mae is the main comic presence. However, there is nothing negative, critical or mean spirited. No less stereotypical is Nancy Ticotin's Spanish Camilla, a hot and sensual 62-year-old (small c) cougar whose lover is 25 years old. Her dynamically performed sensual song and dance number with young Fernando (Alexander Aguilar) should please most audiences.

All of the cast is in fine fettle. The other delightfully well performed seniors are Madeleine Doherty as Estelle, who has danced for 17 years with an amateur community tap dance group; Lenora Nemetz as Fran, who has only auditioned in order to find costumers to sell Mary Kay cosmetics; and Kay Walbye as Muriel that nearly blind senior. Attending Half Time you will probably be able to guess the groaner cure for her malady.

Haven Burton is Tara, the seniors team young coach and aged-out Cougarette who fights to preserve the seniors' jobs and dignity. Tracy Jai Edwards is Alison Prager, the Cougars VP who wants to jettison the group. Their solid, believable performances provide needed conflict.

Half Time's creators reach out to left field to find some hot button issues with, at best, indifferent results. Most egregious is a maudlin, poetic song about the tragedy of Alzheimer's disease ("The Water Rises"). It is dark, baleful and hackneyed, out of synch with the balance of the score and antithetical to the style and phraseology of the character who sings it. Furthermore, it conveys no information that could not readily been conveyed in one short bit of dialogue.

Dorothy raps that Dottie is treated with malice by haters who say that a white girl has no right to perform hip-hop. Joanne says that she can't dance hip-hop because she is "the whitest woman in the world." She refers to hip-hop happy Dorothy as the "white Paula Abdul." The last two quotes seem to be normative repartee. But, puzzlingly, after an altercation totally unrelated to anything racial/ethnic/religious, Mae, uncharacteristically and out of the blue, lashes out at Joanne, calling her a "privileged white woman." Now a hurt, angry person might say anything, but, coming from Mae, these words are puzzling.

When, early on, the newly recruited seniors make a pretty airtight case for being allowed to perform in more traditional dance styles than hip-hop (essentially they argue that hip-hop movements look good on 22-year-old bodies, but are not suited to them either esthetically or physically), it occurred to me that Half Time might proceed to having the seniors somehow seize control and showing that they could put on a better show by dancing in styles more suitable to them and their capabilities. I still think that such an outcome could best elevate and celebrate them. In any event, the choreography for their ultimate routine is on the smooth, just a bit hip-hoppy side. It is a miscue is have Cougarettes step out prominently during this number as their flashier movement reduces the impact of the seniors' efforts.

Half-Time, with this superior cast, sleek production and not inconsiderable entertainment value, is a new musical which is well worth seeing whatever its future fortune may be.

Half Time, through July 1, 2018, at Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn NJ. Evenings: Wednesday and Thursday 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday 8 pm; Sunday 7 pm/ Matinees: Thursday, Saturday and Sunday 1:30 pm. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org

Creatives:
Book by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin
Music by Matthew Sklar
Lyrics by Nell Benjamin
Additional Music by Marvin Hamlisch
Directed and Choreographed by Jerry Mitchell

Cast:
Announcer, Fernando, Ensemble: Alexander Aguilar
Judith, Female TV Host, Ensemble: Sydni Beaudoin
Tara: Haven Burton
Mae: Lori Tan Chinn
Ron: André De Shields
Estelle: Madeleine Doherty
Alison Prager: Tracy Jai Edwards
Dorothy/Dottie: Georgia Engel
Ensemble: Talya Groves
Jenny: Mary Claire King
Joanne: Donna McKechnie
Fran: Lenora Nemetz
Kendra: Nkeki Obi-Melekwe
Camilla: Nancy Ticotin
Announcer, Anthony, Interviewer, Male TV Host, Ensemble: Garrett Turner
Muriel: Kay Walbye
Bea: Lilias White


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