It’s a good bet that when director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell, bookwriters Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, composer Matthew Sklar and lyricist Nell Benjamin sat around putting together new musical Half Time, at the Paper Mill Playhouse, they talked about it more than once as a companion piece to A Chorus Line.
The so-so show, adapted from Dori Berinstein’s 2008 Gotta Dance documentary, involves a group of one-time dancers auditioning to be a new group of 60-years-plus hip-hop cheerleaders for a fictional New Jersey basketball team called the Cougars. (Luckily, no jokes are cracked about older cougar-like women having eyes for much younger players.)
Actually, when the action begins—in an opus intended to encourage audience members of a certain age to live vigorously—the women and one man presented have knocked the audition and now must pass muster as hip-hoppers of a certain age. This is something none of them knows about. Therefore, their rising to the occasion for an introductory game pretty much supplies the dramatic suspense.
To nudge audiences into thinking about A Chorus Line, guess who’s featured prominently, yet not enough, in Half Time. It’s Tony-winniing Chorus Line leading lady Donna McKechnie. And don’t you know that when McKechnie gets a second-act solo about her need to dance—as she did in 1975 with the Marvin Hamish-Ed Kleban“The Music and the Mirror”—the walls behind her revolve to expose mirrors. That, of course, is what transpired thrillingly back in that exciting Chorus Line day.
That’s not all in this odd homage to A Chorus Line. Believe it or don’t, the music to two numbers, “Dorothy/Dottie” and “The King of Swing”/”There You Are,” is by Marvin Hamlisch. Apparently, the late composer—perhaps himself closely reflecting on his classic tuner—had begun working on the Gotta Dance musicalizing in 2010 and completed seven songs. Sklar, whom he was mentoring, then took over.
Anyway, the Half Time plotline goes that the group—including veteran Broadway troupers André De Shields, Lenora Nemetz and Nancy Ticontin—isn’t getting the hip-hop moves under their belts fast enough to please Cougars management representative Alison Prager (Tracy Jai Edwards). On the other hand, ex-Cougar cheerleader turned dance coach Tara (Haven Burton of the roof-lifting voice) increasingly stands behind her striving troupe.
Significantly, the gang follows their emerging Dorothy/Dottie leader, played with her usual hesitant charm by Georgia Engel. For reasons never explained Dorothy, who walks with a cane, is some sort of split personality, whose alter ego Dottie “has it in her body,” as McKechnie’s Joanne insists, to execute hip-hop arm-and-legwork like a youngish old pro.
As Dorothy—no, Dottie—encourages the others and as Alison starts pushing for the group to present a clown act despite Tara’s dismay—there are a few digressive dramatic fillips. Bea (Lillias White) thinks cheerleader-granddaughter Kendra (Nkeki Obi-Melekwe) shouldn’t be dating that married man. As a running distraction, Bea carries on through a song called “Princess.” To raise the stakes in the second act, Joanne decides she should deal with Mae (Lora Tan Chinn), the one among them having the most trouble fitting in. Temporary unpleasantness ensues.
In addition to Engel, McKechnie and the acting-singing-dancing others, there are accomplished Half Time participants. On David Rockwell’s colorful set (incorporating Jason Lee Courson’s projections), Mitchell comes up with several rousing numbers, especially the hothothot Ticontin-Alexander Aguilar “Como No?” and the final oldster number—the one they do when their first public appearance at last takes place. Scott Barnes’ costumes are also eye-catching.
Among the adequate generic Sklar-Benjamin songs, there is one remarkable standout. In “The Waters Rise,” Mae steps forward to disclose her husband’s disappearance into dementia. Grim? Yes. Astonishing? Also yes. The score’s low point is the ditty Joanne sings in the “Music and the Mirror” spot. In the program it’s identified as “Too Good for This.” The lyric, as sung, is “too good for this shit.” Ugly? Yes. Redeeming in what it does for the McKechnie/Joanne appeal? No.
Every once in a while, Broadway decides to compliment senior citizens as an increasingly part of an aging theater audience. In 1971, Fred Ebb, John Kander, Joe Masteroff and Norman L. Martin concocted 70, Girls, 70, which played for a month. At the end of 1978, Michael Bennett, Marilyn and Alan Bergman, Billy Goldenberg and Jerome Kass offered Ballroom, which ran for about three months. In 1983 Gary Alan Friedman and Will Holt based Taking My Turn on the writings of older people, and it had a commendable run.
And now there’s Half Time. It already had a 2015 Chicago stay under the Gotta Dance title, but it still doesn’t look as if it’ll stick around full time.
Half Time opened June 12, 2018 at the Paper Mill Playhouse (Millburn, NJ) and runs through July 1. Tickets and information: papermill.org