Paper Mill’s ‘Half Time’ is a little half-baked

JERRY DALIA

“Half Time” cast members include, from left, Donna McKechnie, Lori Tan Chinn, Lillias White, Lenora Nemetz, Georgia Engel, Kay Walbye, Andre De Shields, Madeleine Doherty and Nancy Ticotin.

Maybe it was the presence of of Georgia Engel — who played Georgette on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” — in the cast. But as I watched “Half Time” at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, I kept thinking about that famous “Mary Tyler Moore Show” scene in which Mary stands up to Lou during her job interview, and he tells you, “You know what? You’ve got spunk.”

It wasn’t a compliment. “I hate spunk,” Lou continued.

“Half Time” has spunk. But this kind of spunk, I can live without.

I didn’t hate this musical, whose Paper Mill run represents its East Coast premiere. But I didn’t love it, either. It presents its story — about a mismatched group of dancers, 60 and older, who are hired to put together a hip-hop routine for the half-time show of a professional basketball game — as a cute, cuddly, uplifting tale about staying vital with age, and having gumption, and overcoming obstacles, and sticking up for others. But it does so with the depth of a TV sitcom (and not even one as good as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”).

JERRY DALIA

Georgia Engel and Andre De Shields in “Half Time.”

There’s obviously an audience for stuff like this. The crowd on the night I saw it applauded with gusto. They were so enthusiastic, in fact, that I wondered if they were responding more to the likeability of the characters than to the quality of the show itself.

The show’s program describes it as “Broadway-bound,” and certainly, the casting of “Half Time” suggests a move there with few if any changes. The play has four certified stars with many Broadway successes under their belts.

Engel plays Dorothy, a soft-spoken schoolteacher with an unlikely fondness for hardcore hip-hop. Dorothy is basically Georgette, if Georgette occasionally quoted Public Enemy in her babyish voice.

Donna McKechnie’s character, Joanne, is an older version of Cassie, the character McKechnie played, to great acclaim, in “A Chorus Line.” The staging of Joanne’s big second-act number, “Too Good for This,” is even meant to evoke the staging of “A Chorus Line.”

Lillias White plays Bea, an overbearing mother to Kendra (Nkeki Obi-Melekwe), one of the basketball team’s regular dancers. Bea tries out for the team in order to be close to Kendra; Kendra is less than thrilled with this.

André De Shields is Ron, the only male dancer on the team. He’s a widower — a suave former “prince of swing” who wants to prove to his family, and himself, that he’s ready to start living again.

MATTHEW MURPHY

Lillias White in “Half Time.”

Most of the other dancers are defined by a single trait. There’s the one who joined in order to find new customers for the Mary Kay cosmetics she sells, the one who is legally blind, the one who has a young boyfriend, and so on.

Nancy Ticotin, who plays Camilla (the one with the young boyfriend), is the chief scene-stealer beyond the primary four co-stars. Camilla seems a little young for this crew — it’s explained that she’s only 60, while the others are at various points in their 60s and 70s. While the other characters strive for mere competence in their moves, she dazzles.

The dancers’ coach, Tara (Haven Burton), is a former dancer herself, who has just “aged out” of the basketball team’s full-time dance group, at 27. Tara’s boss, Alison (Tracy Jai Edwards), is the villain, intent on turning the elderly dancers into a novelty act and thereby squashing their chance of self-realization.

The basketball team is the fictional New Jersey Cougars, and their full-time dance team is called The Cougarettes. The musical is loosely based on “Gotta Dance,” a 2008 documentary about the Nets’ senior hip-hop dance team, but book writers Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin give the characters a fresh supply of bland wisecracks.

When, for instance, it is mentioned that a proposed name of the dance group is Nifty Shades of Gray, one character remarks that that “sounds like a bunch of seniors, dressed in leather, spanking each other.”

And when one of the dancers says that they’re all in the same boat, another chimes in: “And that boat is called The Titanic.”

The songs (music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Nell Benjamin) are pleasant and catchy enough. (NOTE: The play has been in development for so long that Marvin Hamlisch, who died in 2012, is credited with “additional music”). Scenic designer David Rockwell has a great moment when the dance studio in which most of the musical takes place is transformed, almost instantaneously, into an arena.

At some point in the show, you may find yourself wondering, “Why are people getting so worked up about a half-time routine that no one’s going to pay much attention to, anyway?” Similarly, you may feel that “Half Time” itself puts a tremendous amount of talent in service to — and expends a tremendous amount of creative energy on — a story that doesn’t always seem worthy of it.

The Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn will present “Half Time” through July 1. Visit papermill.org.

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