Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Half Time--Generally Entertaining With Grand Cast 

The pleasant and generally entertaining new musical “Half Time” which perks up during the second act just had its northeast premiere at the Paper Mill Playhouse before it is scheduled to arrive on Broadway in the near future. 

The show is based on a true story about a group of over 60 seniors who are recruited by the NBA’s management to actually be the stars of the half time show. Only here they are not performing for the Nets as was the case but a fictionalized team named The Cougars.  They are to be trained by the coach Tara (Haven Burton) as directed so by the snarly head of management Alison Prager (Tracy Jai Edwards.) The goal is for Tara to teach these “over the hill” group of  eight women and one man hip hop. However, the seniors think they will be performing standard dances when they signed on. 

What works best in the show is the mostly superb cast who are Broadway veterans several having  created some memorable characters through the years. 

The wonderful Andre De Shields (“The Wiz” “The Full Monty”) whom I remember vividly doing the show stopping “Big Black Man” from “Monty” still has lost none of his zest for dancing. He can still move around with the best of them. He has a charming number “The Prince of Swing” written by the late great Marvin Hamlisch who contributed a few songs to the show. De Shields portrays a lonely widower who has spent most of his time in his daughter’s basement before taking this job on. 

Lillias White who won a well deserved Tony for “The Life” is a hoot as the outspoken Bea who tries to convince her granddaughter Kendra (Nkei Obi-Melekwe) that her boyfriend is a lout. She has the lovely number “Princess” she sings to Kendra about how much she enjoyed being a part of her life  through the years. 

The always welcome Donna McKechnie portrays the not so self assured Joanne whose claim to fame was starring in some awful sounding musical and then marrying a famous urologist. In a nod to McKechnie from her Cassie role in  “A Chorus Line” the panels from the rear of the stage turn with mirrors appearing where she breaks into her famed “Music and the Mirror” from that show. She still exhibits the vitality that she had when she opened in that show decades ago. 

Georgina Engel with her whispery voice is the kindergarten teacher Dorothy who is the only senior who actually has a love for hip hop and her idol is the late Tupac. I am not sure if I completely believed this and found her one number “Dorothy /Dottie”  which should have been much better falling flat. It does not seem to matter to the audience  for the fact that is she is most definitely a crowd please was evident by the cheering she receives by just making a few hip hop moves which to me came across a bit silly. 

Nancy Ticotin brings the dynamic bounce to the show with her fiery “Como No?” dancing with her 25 year old hunky new boyfriend (Alexander Aguilar). Lenora Nemetz is  humorous as the Mary Kay salesperson and Kay Walbye is funny as the not so legally blind Bea. Lori Tan Chinn is both comical and touching as the least prolific dancer Mae whose husband is in the throes of what might be dementia. She has a beautiful number “The Waters Rise” which smartly opens the second act. 

The book by Bob Martin (“The Drowsy Chaperone”) and Chad Beguelin (“Aladdin”) is serviceable and improves in the second act.  Cuts should be made to the exceedingly overlong first act before considering a Broadway transfer. It is later in in the show when you get to know more about the performers’ personal lives and thankfully nothing is belaboured. 

Even the score by Matthew Sklar (music) and Nell Benjamin (lyrics) is much improved later in the show. The positive attitude the characters developed through their determination shines brightly in  “New Point of View” a rousing number in which they all let loose. 

Director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell is the perfect fit for this type of show keeping it moving a good speed and having several of the leads get their time in the spotlight. 

The valuable set designer David Rockwell has done a fine job of creating a colourful looking gym with excellent projections by Jason Lee Courson.  

Despite some stale jokes and that sometimes tedious first act, those veteran performers still have it and they alone are worth the price of admission. 

Tickets are available at the Paper Mill Playhouse 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn NJ or by calling 973.376.4343. Limited engagement ends July 1. 


Monday, June 4, 2018

The Great Leap--Immensely Entertaining 

By Joseph Cervelli

I must say that I am not familiar with playwright Lauren Yee’s previous works which I now regret after viewing the highly satisfying and original “The Great Leap” at the Atlantic Theater Company. 

I was slightly unsure about attending since it seemed the play deals with basketball which I know about as much of as nuclear physics. Yet, I was completely taken in from the very first scene,  since the play is about determination in setting and fulfilling your goals along with some surprises along the way. While the play’s conclusion is a bit contrived it by no means spoils the vast enjoyment throughout and is helped immensely by a superior cast of four exceptional performances. 

The play begins in 1989 with the basketball coach for the University of San Francisco, Saul (played with mastery skill by Ned Eisenberg) who has been invited to bring his team to Beijing for an exhibition game. The manic and quite funny high school senior Manford (a wonderfully convincing Tony Aidan Vo), wants to play point guard for the team. His height is a problem so the foul mouthed Saul refuses despite Manford’s constant begging him. Saul has enough problems with a not very amicable divorce and problems in seeing his daughter.  We later find out that the young man’s mother has passed away and he is living with this “cousin” Connie (an excellent Ali Ahn) who is not really related but her father is the superintendent of their building. There is little mention of what happened to Manford’s own father in the first act. In a flashback to 1979 we see Saul (at first, you might not immediately  recognize the impressive Eisenberg with a toupee and shorts looking years younger as he is supposed to ) who was invited to Beijing to help teach the Chinese team some American techniques. There he meets the humble translator Wen Chang (a superb BD Wong) who has a difficult time trying to translate Saul’s epithets and vile comments which prove to be more amusing than offensive. 

Things turn more serious in the even better second act when Saul agrees to bring Manford to Beijing in which complications develop. Wen Chang has become the basketball coach and suddenly the new Chinese players are now about seven feet tall. Not exactly what Saul nor Manford anticipated.

What Lee has done under the decisive direction by Taibi Magar is not only to build the suspense of what will happen during the basketball game (staged thrillingly in almost a stationary position) but Manford getting caught up at the time the students were marching and being killed in Tiananmen Square. David Bengali’s projection designs are extremely effective.

What is admirable is that Yee could have easily have had Wen Chang become a  condescending voice on the behavior of the  Americans but that is  not the case. There is some worthwhile and faithful philosophising but no preaching which is an easy pitfall. 

Hagar and the tremendous cast has pulled the audience into this show that slowly blossoms into a social conscience  that informs and entertains along the way.

        Tickets are available at the Atlantic Theater Company/Stage 2 330 West 16th Street or by calling 866.811.4111.

PHOTO CREDIT: Ahron R. Foster