Do you know what it’s like to be invisible? I’m not talking Harry Potter Mischief Managed invisibility, I mean people literally look right through you. You don’t? Then you’re not over 50, or 60 or 70. Imagine having a life full of accomplishment, work, and raising a family, only to be put out to pasture, where people discount you because of your age. This is the world that many people experience, when they still have a wealth of knowledge and experience to share. And it’s not only AARP-level folks who age out of things.
More thrilling than a three pointer from outside the keybasketball-speak for excitingPaper Mill Playhouse proves its mettle once again as an incubator of brilliant musicals in the presentation of its final show of the season, “Half Time.” It’s based on Dori Berinstein’s “Gotta Dance,” the true life story of a dance squad, vying for a halftime performance spot with the New Jersey Nets, several years ago, and comprised of dancers, who have experience, a LOT of experience, and of the professional dancers who coach them to a literal and moral victory. Adapted for the stage, the book is by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, whose work you know but may not know you do. Martin worked on Paper Mill’s “The Sting” and Beguelin, on “The Wedding Singer.” Matthew Sklar wrote the music and Nell Benjamin the lyrics, and there’s a little help from above with a sprinkling of Marvin Hamlisch for luck. Sklar composed for “The Wedding Singer” and Benjamin’s most recent work includes “Mean Girls.” This is some star line-up! Add in Jerry Mitchell’s (“La Cage aux Folles”) expert direction and choreography, with Charlie Alterman’s vocal arrangements and musical direction, and this is a night of discovery for the entire family.
The fictional New Jersey Cougars are looking for something new and fresh. Their marketing director Alison Prager (Tracy Jai Edwards) sets a task for dance coach Tara (Haven Burton) and the Cougarettes, Kendra (Nkeki Obi-Melekwe) and Jenny (Marie Claire King) and the girls, to audition and select a group of elders for a dance troupe for the half time show. Alison was once a Cougarette and is now the marketing veep for the franchise. Tara was also once a Cougarette who recently “aged out” at 27 and is now coaching, wondering how on earth she landed this Herculean task. The group selected has some rhythm. And the eight women and one man range in age from 60 on up. And here, the fun begins.
Dorothy (Georgia Engel), Joanne (Donna McKechnie), Bea (Lillias White), Mae (Lori Tan Chinn), Camilla (Nancy Ticotin), Estelle (Madeleine Doherty), Fran (Lenora Nemetz), Muriel (Kay Walbye), and Ron (Andre De Shields) are the finalists among hundreds of 60+ folk who turned out to audition for the elder dance team that Alison has cleverly, she thinks, called “Nifty Shades of Gray.” That’s not sufficiently disconnective for the finalists: when they find out that they will not be dancing the way that they are accustomed to, but rather learning a Hip-Hop routine, there is dissension in the nascent ranks! Clearly there will need to be a bridge across this chasm of understanding, and there are lessons in abundance here about ageism, class, race, and how to be fully and truly a compassionate human being. The stratification that occurred after the Boomers, during the upbringing of Gen X, Gen Y, and Millennials, breaks through to the multi-cultural, multi-generational future in this dynamic work, where new generations are introduced to the work of people we’ve loved.
Challenging the way each of us looks at everyone else is part of the magic of theatre. When we get special vignettes of Bea singing about her Princess, her granddaughter Kendra, who is one of the Cougarettes, or Camilla demonstrating that a bit of snow on the roof doesn’t mean there’s not a white-hot fire in the furnace, or Joanne reminding us that dreams live within us all our lives in a sparklingly delightful dance, prepare for young minds to be blown. Mae’s love for her husband descending into Alzheimer’s is hankie-provoking. And when Dottie emerges? Prepare for some of the most memorable parts of your evening.
De Shields is a national treasure. His heart shines through in everything he does, and one of my favorite numbers is “The Prince of Swing/There You Are,” where Ron remembers how it felt to dance with his beloved wife Judith, youthful and beautiful in his arms. I tear up just thinking about the bittersweetness. Ron’s grace-note commentary, to the conversations of the women swirling around him, are also priceless. And when Ron and Dottie are in the same place at the same time, magic happens.
Turn your notions on their ear, if you’re a young’un and if you are moreahemexperienced, remember that often we stand in our own way, when we leave behind the things we love. We are never too old to do what we love, and it is never too late to learn something new. See “Half Time” today!
for tickets. The show runs only through July 1, so jump on it!