Review: Hip-Hopping With the Stars in ‘Half Time’

Review: Hip-Hopping With the Stars in ‘Half Time’

MILLBURN, N.J. — Some shtick refuses to grow moss. It defies reason that Georgia Engel, doing Georgia Engel, should seem so uncommonly fresh in the generally stale new musical “Half Time,” which opened this week at Paper Mill Playhouse here.

Ms. Engel is portraying a hip-hop-loving kindergarten teacher in this work of calculated uplift, directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell, a specialist in the genre (“Kinky Boots”). And she projects exactly the same persona that made her famous four decades ago when she appeared in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

In that beloved 1970s series, you may recall (especially if you’re a member of this production’s target age group), Ms. Engel portrayed Georgette, the human equivalent of cotton candy. She was an airy, abstracted, confectionary presence — a case for the dangerous notion that innocence is the best defense — and you would have thought a little of her would go a long way.

Yet here she is, some 40 years later and 69 years old, deploying that same perplexed stare and breathy little-girl voice. And she totally lights up the stage, while bringing bright new inflections to song and dance moves inspired by Biggie Smalls, Tupac Shakur and Run-DMC. I hadn’t been conscious that I was missing Ms. Engel, but evidently I was.

Ms. Engel is one of several legitimate reasons to stay awake during this production, which was inspired by Dori Berinstein’s 2008 documentary “Gotta Dance,” about a basketball halftime dance team made up of performers over 60. Featuring a book by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, with songs by Matthew Sklar and Nell Benjamin, “Half Time” allows you the pleasures of reacquaintance with other vintage talents.

They include Lillias White, who won a Tony Award in 1997 as a big-voiced, big-hearted, blunt-spoken prostitute in “The Life,” who appealingly shows up here as a big-voiced, big-hearted, blunt-spoken grandma. The septuagenarian André De Shields, a two-time Tony nominee who never met an audience he wasn’t determined to seduce, is on hand to strut his radioactive charisma as a determinedly seductive widower.

And, striking a terpsichorean pose before a wall of mirrors — why, it’s Donna McKechnie, who won a Tony in 1976 for “A Chorus Line.” In that benchmark musical, Ms. McKechnie, then in her early 30s, portrayed a once successful dancer who is afraid she’s over the hill. Now, at 75, Ms. McKechnie is playing, uh, a once successful dancer who is afraid she’s over the hill.

Such conscious juxtapositions of past and present might seem unkind. But the cast members who make up this show’s central chorus line, all over 60, still do what they once did with grace and style, if less athleticism. Which is, after all, the point of a production that advertises itself as “the new musical about not acting your age.”

Nonetheless, when Ms. McKechnie’s character delivers an expletive-laced second-act solo that begins, “I’m too good for this — ,” a part of you may agree. “Half Time” is a geriatric variation on the venerable backstage musical, in which a motley team of performers work against an impossible deadline to put on a really great show.

In this case, Tara (a shiny Haven Burton), a former member of the dance team for the (fictitious) New Jersey Cougars, is assigned the task of assembling a publicity-garnering novelty act of seniors doing hip-hop.

The group — more accustomed to swing, ballet and the electric slide — resist this new style. But it turns out that one of them, the demure Dorothy (Ms. Engel), has a hip-hop-fluent alter-ego named Dottie whose favorite recreation is to toss aside her cane and make like “the white Paula Abdul.”

Can the others learn what’s necessary from Tara and Dottie during a mere three weeks’ of rehearsals? Will they be able to do so without tripping over cumbersome sitcom clichés about learning to get along and being honest with themselves?

The answer to the first question is — well, duh — yes. The answer to the second is, perhaps equally predictably, no.

The show is structured to evoke sentimental suspense. Many of the main characters — who also notably include the diminutive, ever-smiling Mae (Lori Tan Chinn) and the fiery Camilla (a vibrant Nancy Ticotin) — have (eminently guessable) secrets to be unveiled in spotlighted solos.

David Rockwell’s gymnasium set is punctuated by regular projections (by Jason Lee Courson) counting down the number of days left before the big public performance. The team members — along with several of Tara’s young assistants — become friends, quarrel, make up and learn and teach life lessons, while singing pleasant, repetitive numbers of aspiration and revelation (including three written for the show by Marvin Hamlisch, who died in 2012).

And the pace is somehow that of a meandering snail.

Part of this has to do with the dancing, which is a surprise given Mr. Mitchell’s status as a crowd-pleasing choreographer. In “Half Time” (which was staged in an earlier version in Chicago in 2015), his work lacks the kind of through line that all shows about putting on a show require — the sense of an act developing by visible degrees until it takes its thrilling final form.

There is one moment when the impeccably put-together Joanne (Ms. McKechnie), a doctor’s wife who danced on Broadway in her youth, and Tara the coach do a quick point-counterpoint of choreographic gestures. It suggests a real dialogue between styles and generations.

Yet the exchange is fleeting and never picked up again. And the script’s genuinely funny lines are so rare that when they occur you wonder if you haven’t misheard. (I did enjoy it when Ms. Ticotin’s Camilla snapped before her big salsa-style dance number, “You’re stereotyping me. I’m always being stereotyped. Hand me my castanets!”)

The show mostly avoids patronizing its characters with cute oldster humor. (Although my date suggested it might be subtitled “Seniors do the darnedest things.”) And I wouldn’t have missed Ms. Engel demonstrating the art of the street dance style known as tutting.

Her un-self-conscious conviction, and pure pleasure, cut right through the prevailing slow stream of treacle. She and her enduringly gifted co-stars definitely deserve the showcase that “Half Time” gives them. But they also deserve a vehicle as original as their own idiosyncratic talents.

Half Time
Through July 1 at Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn, N.J.; 973-315-1451, papermill.org. Running time: 2 hour 30 minutes.

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