‘Half Time’ turns the tables on aging in gleeful production

By Liz Keill

MILLBURN, NJ – The Paper Mill Playhouse is putting on a smashing new production of “Half Time” to round out its current season.

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With actress Georgia Engel in an engaging performance, the cast also features Donna McKehnie, Andre De Shieilds and Lilias White, among a host of other talents.

The musical centers on an effort to have seniors perform a dance number during half-time at a basketball game. But rehearsals go awry as some of them just can’t master the hip-hop steps, especially Lori Tan Chinn as Mae. Yet their director, (Haven Burton’s Tara), ultimately sees that each of these performers has a story to tell. She fights for them to be a genuine part of the entertainment, despite management’s reluctance.

The first act seems to treat aging with familiar clichés, but in Act II, we learn more about some of the characters, struggling with a partner’s Alzheimer’s (Mae) or McKechnie facing aging and a husband who’s left her for someone younger. The possibility of dancing and connecting as a team makes all the difference in their sense of pride and accomplishment.

De Shields as Ben gives a moving and at times hilarious account of spending most of his time in the basement, except when he takes his nephew to Sea World. Engel, in her perfectly timed comeback, asks if that’s about killing whales.  At any rate, the scene works like a charm. She’s also terrific in her attraction to hip hop. And even here we learn how hip hop began.

DeShields is also a winner in his “The Prince of Swing and There You Are.” Matthew Sklar and Nell Benjamin are credited for most of the music, ” with Marvin Hamlisch, writing additional music. The book is by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin.

Nancy Ticotin as Camilla and Alexander Aguilar as Fernando add plenty of zing with a sexy bosa nova type number, “Como No?” Lillias White as Bea gives her daughter Kendra (Nkeki Obi-Melekwe) a hard time for dating a not quite divorced man (Garrett Turner as Anthony.) White has plenty of sass that keeps the audience rooting for her.

There’s not a whole lot of plot in this fun filled evening, but the pace never slackens, thanks to direction and choreography by Jerry Mitchell.  Scenic design by David Rockwell, costumes by Gregg Barnes and lighting by Kenneth Posner all add to the show’s appeal.

After the intermission, “Half Time” really takes off. Perhaps some of those personal stories could be explored earlier in the play so that we have a more complete picture of the challenges that come with time, aging, and life’s joys and sorrows.

“Half Time” continues at The Paper Mill Playhouse through July 1. For tickets, call 973-376-4343 or visit PaperMill.org.