Life would be much easier for HALF TIME had there never been A CHORUS LINE
This new musical at the Paper Mill Playhouse has senior citizens endeavoring to become dancers for The New Jersey Cougars basketball team.
The show was inspired by The New Jersey Nets, who, in 2006, recruited old-timers to dance and entertain the fans.
Because CHORUS LINE famously milked the suspense of who’d be selected and who wouldn’t, Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin were hamstrung from replicating such a contest. Instead, they’ve been forced to start their story after the auditioners have already made the cut.
As we scan the ones who’d been chosen, however, we must wonder what Cougars head honcho Alison Prager and director Tara (No-Last-Name) were thinking. Mae (Lori Tan Chinn) is an airhead who can’t follow the most basic instructions. Muriel (Kay Walbye) admits she’s legally blind. Dorothy (Georgia Engel, with her glassy smile intact) walks with a cane.
THESE are the cream of the crop?! Under these dim circumstances, Martin and Beguelin should at least have had Tara say to Alison “Look, believe it or not, these are the best of all who showed up. If we’re going to do this, we’ll have to play with these cards that we’ve been dealt.” As it stands now, we can’t believe that these incompetents passed muster and survived any grueling auditions.
Once the Nifties are set, only then are they told that they’ll be doing hip-hop. Ron (Andre De Shields), the sole man in the group (and nothing is made of that), objects to that style of music and the dancing that accompanies it. The other seniors agree. But in reality, Alison and Tara would have revealed this salient fact during auditions. HALF TIME will spend a great deal of time making the seniors look inept, but this wrong-headed way of handling auditions indicts the young, too. Let Muriel be myopic, but don’t have the bosses be myopic, too.
Alison, Tara and the Cougar cheerleaders are insensitive and clueless when dealing with the seniors. They think nothing of saying vaguely insulting things about their age and abilities. “What is that clicking?” Tara says in her most annoyed fashion. As it turns out, the seniors have been tapping to pass time; to Tara and Alison, that will never do. It must be hip-hop.
Must it? In the midst of all the pop rock music that makes up the score of SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS, the most critically acclaimed number — the one that gets the audience to cheer the most — is the Act Two tap dazzler. On The 2017-18 Tonys, this was the one number out of the 15 that the producers chose to showcase. Remember, too, that two productions of 42ND STREET amassed over 5,000 performances on Broadway, so tapping must appeal to more people than Alison and Tara assume.
Besides, must seniors be solely judged on young peoples’ terms and their strengths nullified because new fashions have emerged? Can’t there be room for both? Take note, Alison and Tara; as Herb Gardner had a senior say to a much younger man in I’M NOT RAPPAPORT, “Someday you too will be a member of this weird tribe.” And when you are, Alison and Tara, you’ll be mocked for knowing hip-hop, since it will have been long replaced with God-knows-what.
The show is supposed to dispel the notion that old age makes people good for nothing. HALF TIME does just the opposite. Although the book wants the dancers on the line to prove they’re not at the end of the line, it continually has them make mistake after mistake (after mistake after mistake). At least 80% of the show reveals the dancers as unable to learn or perform adequately. What might have been a celebration of the elderly simply reiterates young people’s belief that seniors can no longer cut the mustard and should go home to their mustard plasters. A hasty finale in which they come through is utterly unbelievable considering all that we’ve seen of them.
Too bad, for the idea that seniors have much to give – and teach – is an admirable and worthy one. We want to agree with the one who insists “I’ll make the world pay attention again.”
She’s Joanne, played by Donna McKechnie, most famous for her Tony-winning role in, yes, A CHORUS LINE. Lord knows how many hours the staff of HALF TIME debated on whether or not to cast McKechnie. “She’s still terrific,” her proponents must have said. “Yes, but she’ll remind everyone of CHORUS LINE,” argued the nay-sayers. Claims of “She’ll be great in that big dance number that shows she still has it” must have been countered with “But it’ll look like a watered-down version of CHORUS LINE’s ‘The Music and the Mirror.’”
(Indeed, it does. – right down to the back wall spinning around to reveal floor-to-ceiling mirrors.)
What’s more, Joanne is established as a one-time pro who’s making a return. That’s too cozy-close to her CHORUS LINE role of Cassie, who was admittedly 40 years younger but still in the same leaky boat.
One of the writers’ biggest missteps is the relationship they’ve created between Kendra, who’s on the actual Cougars’ cheerleading squad, and Bea, who’s made the senior team (which has been officially named “Nifty Shades of Grey”). The first time we see them together is in a car which Kendra’s is driving. She is SO condescending and critical of Bea that we can do nothing but hate her.
True, adult daughters and elderly mothers often do battle with the former treating the latter in terrible fashion. But Kendra has been written as Bea’s granddaughter.
No. An aging grandmother and twentysomething granddaughter have a history of being much more loving to each other. Mothers and daughters who’ve spent much more of their lives together have issues galore; the average grandmothers are instead non-stop doting. When they become old, their granddaughters are usually lovely, accepting and willing to overlook any failings. Besides, you’d think that Kendra would be proud of her grandmother for making the team. She doesn’t show a moment of excitement or offer her congratulations. Where’s her scream of delight and big hug?
The writers must have felt that Kendra had to be a granddaughter because they have her dating Anthony, a Cougar player. That he’s married and not yet divorced is the mammoth bone of contention between Bea and Kendra. True, Bea is very critical of Kendra’s choice, but the nagging she does is truer of a mother than a grandmother who’d take a kinder, gentler approach.
Now of course if Bea is in her 70s, her daughter would be somewhere between 40 and 50 – an age that wouldn’t seem to appeal to a pro basketball player who could get plenty of younger women. What’s more, Kendra would have aged out of the cheerleading squad (as did Tara, now that she’s a ripe 27; Martin and Beguelin make a little something of that).
So Kendra had to be Bea’s granddaughter, no? In fact, no. Martin and Beguelin could have the forty-year-old daughter dating the team’s fifty-year old still-married coach. Even if they were to make that vital switch, the writers and director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell should then soft-pedal the non-stop vitriol and impatience that Kendra dispenses.
Bea sings “My Princess” which is how she originally saw her granddaughter and now wonders what has happened. During it, the Paper Mill theatergoers were soberly silent, perhaps because they’ve experienced these feelings with their own children. Here’s betting, though, that they haven’t often felt it about their grandchildren.
Anthony eventually meets Bea. Now even a rookie basketballer (which Anthony isn’t) would imperiously think of himself as hot stuff and would bring that attitude into the car. Yes, he would want to make a nice impression on his lover’s grandmother, but not much time would pass before her criticism would get him on a very high horse befitting a super-tall and super-wealthy basketball player.
Would CHORUS LINE composer Marvin Hamlisch have cried foul at HALF TIME’s closeness to his masterpiece? No, because he was originally involved with the project. He died before completing the musical, so his protégé Matthew Sklar – whom Hamlisch discovered while the lad was still in high school (and even wrote college recommendations for him) – took over.
Sklar’s music is fine and fits the characters well, but there’s no denying that the show’s best song is Hamlisch’s “The Prince of Swing.” The show’s creators know it, too, for they give it an Act Two reprise and have it start both the entr’acte and the exit-music.
Singing that winner in fine fashion is Andre De Shields. The creators and Mitchell make the piece the show’s finest emotion-packed moment, for Ron mourns his deceased wife who comes to life as her younger self. The two dance and – partly because of the endearing grin that De Shields gives both his long-lost love and us — make the audience shed tears of joy.
Hamlisch’s one other contribution is “Dorothy/Dottie” which Georgia Engel does well. The reason for her having two names is that she seemingly has two personalities. (Camilla, played by the excellent Nancy Ticotin, calls her “Sybil.”) Is that supposed to explain why she needs a cane while walking but doesn’t require it when she dances? The writers do have a character ask about the disparity, to which Engel “explains” that “It’s a mystery.”
Yes – one that Jessica Fletcher, Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot wouldn’t be able to solve.
Lenora Nemetz – who in the late ‘70s was the first person to ever play both Roxie and Velma in CHICAGO – makes a welcome return as Fran, who makes her living hawking Mary Kay. Fran even says that she auditioned simply in order to meet more people and make more sales. It’s not a bad idea, but more could be mined from it. Although Fran could see the Nifties as an opportunity that could lead to her dumping Mary Kay once and for all, a better solution would have her be the Nifties’ Voice of Reason who says to her comrades, “Look, this dance thing isn’t going to last forever. This is my bread-and-butter, and I’m not ditching it.”
This would reiterate one of the themes that HALF TIME should better embrace: living a long time teaches many lessons about reality. Hell, even when Stephen Schwartz was in his early 20s, he knew enough to write for his oldest character in PIPPIN: “There’s one thing to be sure of, mate; there’s nothing to be sure of.” Why don’t these seniors ever express that? Instead, the old-timers do the expected: misplacing items and repeating themselves.
That the group has been drawn as incompetent is bad enough; that the young ‘uns haven’t the slightest awareness that they could ever be hurting these people’s feelings is insulting. So ultimately HALF TIME doesn’t just make seniors look bad, but twenty-somethings, too.
“Second-Act Trouble” is a malady that has struck the majority of Broadway musicals; HALF TIME is not immune. When the Nifties appear on a morning magazine show (introduced by two anchor-hosts whom the writers make overly smiley-silly), Mae gets lost and ruins the routine. Still, she’s the one whom the hosts suddenly decide to interview; how they got pictures of her family isn’t readily explained.
All this is to set up Mae’s Big Number “The Waters Rise,” which details her difficulties in dealing with a husband who’s suffering from Alzheimer’s. It’s a superb song, both musically and lyrically (which is no surprise, for Nell Benjamin is one of our best current crop of lyricists), but it would mean so much more if Mae hadn’t been characterized as senile. For us to suddenly take seriously a character who’s been providing the most basic comic relief is too much of an adjustment for an audience to make.
Alison demands that Mae be fired. “We expect a certain level of competence,” she says two hours into the show when she should have said it from out outset.
Tara doesn’t want to fire Mae because she’s bonded with her group (or so she says; we don’t actually see a moment where that happens) and refuses.
So Joanne takes it upon herself to tell Mae what’s happening – not that we hear it; she takes her off-stage, perhaps because the writers found that scene too difficult to write.
If HALF TIME is going to go this route, it should stress the sad reality that everyone, be he or she young or old, can’t always do the job. Indeed, the show would be substantially stronger if Mae were fired in the show’s first few minutes. That would establish that the stakes are high and precious little failure will be tolerated. The room would be replete with tension that it doesn’t have now.
Joanne shouldn’t take it on herself to tell Mae that the ax will soon swing. Once again, HALF TIME gives another example of old people not knowing how to handle a situation. What a poignant scene we’d see if Joanne instead gently prepared Mae for what’s going to happen.
Instead, Joanne’s faux pas allows everyone to turn against and bring up that the former pro has been lauding her former Broadway experience all over them. (Actually, she hasn’t – not really.) Every one of them without fail wants Mae to return, despite the fact that all show long she has been without fail a failure, not to mention the village idiot who most comes out with silly remarks, dotty perceptions and non sequiturs. “We can’t go on without you,” she’s told.
Oh, yes, they can.
Mae is supposed to be little-old-lady endearing, but if HALF TIME wants to Glorify the American Senior, it doesn’t do it by creating such a character. She’s there to get easy laughs.
To be fair, Chinn got them from the Paper Mill crowd. So did Engel, whose Dottie is drawn as a big rap fan who knows all the rappers and all their songs. And so did every other performer when he or she came out with an unexpected profanity. (But how unexpected are profanities from people who came of age in the era of HAIR and The Fugs?)
One of the strongest performances comes from Tracy Jai Edwards as Alison, despite her not singing a note (which is a right decision because this character has no music inside her). She’s all business, but she’s never a harridan even when she makes her demands (that the authors should have had her dispense during auditions). Here we have a completely professional actress portraying a completely professional executive.
Mitchell allows much of his cast top to overdo the cutesiness. Still, his dances are all that one could expect from a Broadway musical.
Would that HALF TIME could offer more of the emotion found in one senior’s resolve not to quit: “I can’t go home. They’d never let me live it down.” It’s a good line and a superb idea. It indicates that there is potential in this show.
But let’s see a musical that genuinely convinces us that young and old can work together and that each group can teach the other and improve from the experience. That’s a wonderful idea for a musical, and maybe some day we’ll get one.
Or maybe HALF TIME can be rewritten to become one.