‘Gotta Dance’ Review — Seniors Rule in Spunky Musical

 

Cast of 'Gotta Dance'

“Stageism” — the portmanteau term for favoring the young on Broadway — is finally being confronted in a musical that puts its money where its meaning is: senior performers, center stage, doing their thing. “Who Wants to See That?” asks one of the songs in “Gotta Dance,” the musical in pre-Broadway production at Bank of America Theatre. The answer: you do.

 

Auditioning in 'Gotta Dance'

Inspired by the real-life story of amateur dancers aged 60-plus who answered a casting call in 2006 to entertain at halftime for the New Jersey Nets NBA franchise, “Gotta Dance” builds on the work of filmmaker Dori Berinstein, who showed up to record those auditions and stayed on to tell the stories of the dancers. Her 2008 documentary “Gotta Dance” garnered wide praise and a producing partnership with Bill Damaschke to use the film as a starting point for the musical, getting its world premiere on Monroe Street and bound for Broadway sometime in 2016.

 

Holly Ann Butler, Jonalyn Saxer, Haven Burton, Sydni Beaudoin

The producers enlisted capable help, with an engaging book by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, enchanting music by Matthew Sklar (“Elf”) and spunky lyrics by Nell Benjamin. Sklar took over the music after the death of his mentor, composer Marvin Hamlisch (“A Chorus Line”), in 2012, with three of Hamlisch’s songs remaining in the score, including “The Prince of Swing” and “There You Are.” Perhaps the best song of the show is “Swagger,” which explores the roots of hip hop.

 

Georgia Engel in 'Gotta Dance'

Rightfully, the stars of “Gotta Dance” are mature performers, their actual ages not masked under layers of metaphorical makeup. The 12 women and 1 man in the NJ NETSational Seniors team portrayed in Berinstein’s film are winnowed to a team of 9 in the musical, but many of their stories stay close to their real-life counterparts. In fact, Georgia Engel, the 67-year-old actor who will be forever known as the ditzy Georgette from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and who plays Dorothy/Dottie in the musical, bears a striking physical resemblance to real-life Betty/Betsy, a kindergarten teacher with a surprising taste for rap. Engel, who began her career in musical theater, fulfills her triple-threat duties winningly.

 

Joanna Jones, Nancy Ticotin, Stefanie Powers

Stefanie Powers (“Hart to Hart”) is well cast as the expertly self-maintained Joanne. Lovely to behold at age 73, and a commanding singer, Powers began her 50-year career as a dancer for the great Jerome Robbins. Regrettably, her dancing skills in “Gotta Dance” look rusty, but her stage presence is strong. Audience members can check out her blog about her experience in the show at Doing a Broadway Musical.

 

André De Shields (center) in 'Gotta Dance'

The inimitable André De Shields (“The Wiz”), who turns 70 in January, is a charmer as grieving widower Ron, as is Broadway veteran Lori Tan Chinn, age 78, as Mae, who balances her husband’s Alzheimer’s with as much joy as she can pack into a day. Nancy Ticotin, with extensive stage and screen credits, nearly steals the show with her sizzling dancing and beautiful voice. She is only 59, not quite old enough for her role as Camilla, but, as this show movingly reminds us, age is only a number. Emmy- and Obie-winner Lilias White is delightful as Bea, feisty grandmother to one of the “junior” cast members, the talented Joanna A. Jones (Kendra).

 

Alexander Aguilar dancing with Nancy Ticotin

The junior cast is important to the success of “Gotta Dance” because if the show featured only seniors it would be as ageist as what it’s trying to counter. Much of the plot centers around the relationship between the seniors and their dance coach, Tara, who has aged out as a Nets Dancer at — gasp — 27. Broadway triple threat Haven Burton (“Kinky Boots,” “Legally Blonde”) brings her ample skills to the part. The remaining cast members, both senior and junior, are an accomplished lot.

 

The performers are supported by a terrific orchestra and effective scenic design (David Rockwell), costumes (Gregg Barnes) and lighting (Kenneth Posner). The show will likely tighten up further before it opens on Broadway, but the book is thankfully free of cringe-worthy clichés about aging.

 

My only argument with “Gotta Dance” is its portrayal of hip hop as an unlikely style for senior dancers. I’m the same age as Georgia Engel, and I take hip hop classes for fun, finding the looser style to be easier on my bones than jazz dance. Years ago I took a grueling jazz dance class with a 77-year-old professional dancer who had appeared in the 1954 film “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” I asked what her secret was. Her reply: “Don’t stop moving.” I’m trying to take her advice. Whether you’re active or not, you’ll want to move on getting a ticket to “Gotta Dance.”

 

 

Gotta Dance

Through January 17, 2016

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St., Chicago

Tickets $38 – $105 at Broadway in Chicago or (800) 775-2000. Use code THANKS for buy one, get one free tickets to evening performances.

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