Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Good Old Fun: Well-Heeled 'Gotta Dance' Seems Likely to Satisfy Mature Audiences -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Gotta Dance
a pre-Broadway world premiere musical
Bank of America Theatre, Chicago
Thru January 17, 2016

There are few things more uplifting than old people who exuberantly demonstrate a passion for defying their age.

Which is pretty much the central conceit of Gotta Dance.

From beginning to end.

Again and again.

Making for a genial, good-natured, at times inspiring show that is pretty predictable and--though crowd-pleasing for musical theater fans of all ages--not quite an old-fashioned masterpiece.

Fictionalizing the true story of a group of seniors chosen to serve as a halftime dance team for the New Jersey Nets--before they moved to Brooklyn and imagined here as the New Jersey Cougars--Gotta Dance is getting its world premiere at Chicago's Bank of America Theatre theoretically en route to Broadway.

Initially intending to open in New York next spring, but now pushed back to fall 2016, the musical seemingly could well find a niche in attracting busloads of senior groups to the Great White Way. (Though given an undersold house on Tuesday night, it's possible a more connotative title could benefit marketing toward the mature crowd.)

And while it strikes me as somewhat quaint at a time of rather progressive fare such as Hamilton and Fun Home (neither of which I've yet seen), not only could Gotta Dance conceivably fit a nice market segment--perhaps ever more so in countless communities far beyond Broadway--but its production values reflect the strong pedigrees of its creators and cast.

Written by Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone) and Chad Beguelin (Aladdin, The Wedding Singer), Gotta Dance features an original score composed by Matthew Sklar (Elf, The Wedding Singer), with lyrics by Nell Benjamin (Legally Blonde). The late Marvin Hamlisch was the show's initial composer, and is credited as writing "additional music."

Along with a good deal of knowing humor in its script, the show is kept from feeling too hokey or saccharine by the steady hand of director Jerry Mitchell (Legally Blonde, Kinky Boots, On Your Feet!), one of the best around and also the show's choreographer.

Even beyond known names like André De Shields (The Wiz, Ain't Misbehavin, The Full Monty), Stephanie Powers (TV's Hart to Hart and considerable theater credits) and Georgia Engel (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Drowsy Chaperone on Broadway), the cast is deep with veteran talents with impressive resumes.

So as the narrative chronicles nine primary senior dance team members with some variance in capabilities, in reality what's presented onstage is far from amateur hour.

Along with nice musical numbers focused on De Shields as the troupe's sole male, the delightful Engel (and her character's hipper alter ego) and Powers as a rich, haughty divorcee, the show also benefits from delving into characters embodied by Lillias White, who is trying to reconnect with her Cougarette granddaughter (Joanna A. Jones) and Nancy Ticotin, whose sassy Camilla serves as the show's primary cougar with a lowercase c.

And supplied with several funny lines, Lori Tan Chinn is as delightful as she is as Chang on Orange is the New Black.

Providing nice counterbalance to the seniors are Haven Burton as a 27-year-old "aged out" former Cougarette charged with coaching the new old squad, and a few other members of the young squad, including the striking Jonalyn Saxer.

The mezzanine audience bestowed an instant standing ovation on Tuesday night, so my intimation that Gotta Dance is more a show to like than to love may well be underselling its appeal to many.

Especially as I believe it to officially still be in previews, I won't harp much on how the show somewhat strains to work in poignant topics such as divorce, family discord, ageism and even Alzheimer's disease.

Revealed as various characters get their turn in the spotlight, these personal revelations make Gotta Dance feel a bit akin to A Chorus Line--the show opens with an obvious reference, enhanced by Hamlisch having scored that show--but whether directly referenced onstage or merely reminiscent, The Full Monty, Cocoon, the documentary Young at Heart and other apt allusions also come readily to mind.

But while Gotta Dance nonetheless feels original enough, and may do well to provide lighter entertainment than some of Broadway's hot new shows, there's too little--including Sklar & Benjamin's songs, which with a couple exceptions are more serviceable than superb--that feels truly distinctive or distinguished.

Still, I genuinely and sufficiently enjoyed Gotta Dance simply as an evening's entertainment, and it would seem logical that I may appreciate it even more once I get a bit older.

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