Regional Reviews: New Jersey / Delaware Valley
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:
Other highlights must be noted with related missteps:
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