Half Time falls squarely in the camp of ‘feel good’ musicals.
It introduces unlikely heroes (a group of seniors who have joined an over-60 dance troupe created by a basketball team), with underdog-style conflict (they need to prove they can pull off a hip-hop routine during half-time at a big game, but they don’t like hip-hop) that results in a happy ending (they pull it off).
That isn’t a spoiler, by the way: the structure of the musical is such that the conclusion is clear by the beginning. The music, composed by Matthew Sklar, falls back on itself with reprise and leitmotif often enough that there are no surprises, only reassurances: the melody will only vary just enough to see us through to a happy ending.
This too-cute musical is based on a true story – you can see it in the documentary Gotta Dance – and it feels similar to another doco-turned-tuner first directed, as Half Time was in its New Jersey debut, by Jerry Mitchell: Kinky Boots.
Both are anodyne, superficially emotional, the kind of show that encourages you sit back, relax, and turn off your brain: everything will be all right in the end. If that’s what you’re looking for in a musical, well, you’ll probably have a very nice time. Jessica Manning’s musical direction serves as a steady heartbeat, and while the sound is occasionally muddy – a common threat at the Hayes – the purpose of each song is clearly communicated.
There are missed opportunities – the storyline between Bea (Deni Gordon – the voice of ‘Rage’) and granddaughter Kendra (Chaska Halliday) doesn’t have a clear arc, and the show’s ‘villain’ storyline isn’t clearly plotted onstage. This production, directed so straightforwardly by Helen Dallimore that scenes feel static, is belaboured by messy transitions, repetition to rival the music, and a lot of characters standing to the side of a scene looking on silently. The show looks – and often feels – shapeless.
But it does have a heart, and Dallimore knows where to find it – in Nancye Hayes’ twinkling eyes as the kindly kindergarten teacher Dorothy who, upon hearing Biggie Smalls for the first time, transforms into tutting beast Dottie; in Gabrielle Chan’s Mae, whose solo number about her husband’s Alzheimer’s is the most successfully staged; and in Stefanie Jones’ Tara, the reluctant seniors coach who, at 27, has ‘aged out’ of the team’s regular dance squad. (‘Age is just a number’ is the prevailing theme of the show).
The cast are saddled with an under-developed book (by Chad Beguelin and Bob Martin) that exists to deliver the cast from dance number to dance number – it’s a ‘making the band’ montage, musical-style. Madison Lee’s choreography is full of gusto (and cleverly scaffolded to incorporate a range of abilities) but doesn’t chart a clear journey of growth in the team. And for a show tightly focused on hip hop, it sure does spring from a lot of white voices.
So: it’s really star power that pulls this across the line into something agreeably watchable. Hayes, Chan, and Jones deliver well-rounded performances (Jones just sounds better and better with every show); so too does Eric Rasmussen as Ron, a senior who in his younger days called himself ‘the Prince of Swing’; and a welcome jolt of energy comes from Zoe Carides’s Camilla, whose personal enemy is the phrase ‘age appropriate’.
The ensemble is full of personality, easily likeable and a pleasure to spend time with. This is a blessing, because it’s a show that’s very close to feeling like a slog – and very close to being boring.