Gotta Dance

Earlier this month, I attended the press premiere of the delightful “Potted Potter” with my boyfriend’s mother. As we walked down a hallway to take our seats for the show, we passed a promotional poster for “Gotta Dance,” the latest production from Broadway in Chicago. The faces of Andre De Shields (“The Jungle Book”), Georgia Engel (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show”) and Stefanie Powers (“Hart to Hart”) jumped out at us immediately.

One stage icon and two small screen legends would have been more than enough to pull me in, but then I read the production’s synopsis: a “new Broadway-bound musical comedy about professional basketball’s first ever aged 60-and-older dance team.” Beloved performers from my childhood, dancing and the prospect of meaty roles for people over 40? A thousand times yes.

I was fortunate enough to secure reviewer duties for this week’s press opening, featuring a book by Tony Award-nominee Chad Beguelin and Tony Award-winner Bob Martin. The show’s music is the product of Matthew Sklar, Nell Benjamin and a young, upcoming kid by the name of Marvin Hamlisch(!). And “Gotta Dance” choreography is furnished by “Kinky Boots” Tony Award-winner Jerry Mitchell, in partnership with Nick Kenkel.

From writers to technical work and performers, “Gotta Dance” boasts an impressive pedigree of talent. Yet as we know, the presence of a chorus line of theater legends does not always result in success. I entered the Bank of America Theatre excited yet philosophical.

A resolve to remain impartial dissolved in mere seconds as the tremendously winning ensemble took the stage for “Just Look at Me Now.” The sassy song emphatically and proudly announces a unique and thrilling musical theater experience. I could write thousands of words about my love for this show. Like a fine wine, the production’s experienced artists and technicians have only improved with age.

Imagine an episode of “The Golden Girls,” packed with the same emotion, wit and acting talent, washed down with an energizing song and dance chaser. The press night opening crowd for “Gotta Dance” quite literally went wild. The momentum never slows. In yet another unconventional Broadway musical turn, the second act is actually stronger than the first. Take that “Dirty Dancing.”

Though the fairly straightforward plot can be described in a sentence, there is so much nuance in this semi-biographical story. The stilted estrangement of dance team member Bea (Lillias White) from her granddaughter Kendra (Joanna A. Jones) is a touching commentary on intergenerational misunderstanding. The two women meet three times on “Princess,” a lovely song which traces the evolution of their relationship as the geriatric team prepares for its debut. White and Jones have the vocal chops to convey the lightest wistfulness before belting a powerhouse finish that reaches the farthest recesses of the theater. They have marvelous chemistry.

Camilla (Nancy Ticotin) and Joanne (Powers) bring the sexy to the stage as two members of the “First Wives Club” with something to prove — namely that they still have all of “it.” In the sultry musical number “Como No,?” the 58-year-old Ticotin had me staring at my junior legs with disappointment. It’s no stretch of the imagination to believe Camilla with a much younger, satisfied lover. Yowza.

I could scarcely contain my glee with a subplot involving blossoming love between Ron (De Shields) and Dottie (Engel). The two veteran performers are a delightful match. De Shields brings moves of the swing era and tragic comic nuance to his role as a grieving widower resolved to give up hiding. And Engel, well what can I say? She simply steals the show. As Dottie, adorable professional schoolteacher and devoted fan of ’80s and ’90s hip-hop, she is the glue that holds the production together.

The vibrant and wonderful “Gotta Dance” is more than a tasty trifle. The suffering of Alzheimer’s disease, the pain of dreams deferred, the cold sting of rejection from a starter husband — the production is not laughing at the elderly. Instead it giggles and hurts with them, never for a second allowing doubt that older, wiser and sweeter makes for a satisfying product.

By the time the beautiful cast takes the stage for “Get Up,” the rousing finale to this multi-dimensional creation, audiences will wish for a third act. I have spent an embarrassing part of the morning scouring YouTube for unauthorized versions of the track — to no avail. I leave you with two urgent recommendations: see this production as soon and often as possible, and if an original cast soundtrack is released, could you let me know? Valentine’s Day is right around the corner and I just “Gotta Dance.”

“Gotta Dance” runs through Jan. 17, 2016 at Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 800-775-2000 or visit the Broadway in Chicago website.

Stomp (January 22, 2015)

'Stomp' at Bank of America Theatre
‘Stomp’ at Bank of America Theatre (Source:www.chicago-theater.com)

I wandered into Chicago’s vaunted Bank of America Theatre earlier this week armed with a healthy dose of skepticism. Of course, I was aware of “Stomp’s” reputation as a theatrical staple for the better part of the last two decades, performed in more than 50 countries in front of 24 million people. A work doesn’t often gain that type of cultural traction without quality.

But existentially I wondered if it were truly possible to tell a story with nothing more than sounds — human generated and otherwise. As anyone familiar with the material knows, “Stomp’s” performers “make a rhythm on anything we can get our hands on,” according to co-founder and director Luke Cresswell. Members of the troupe use their bodies, their feet and all sorts of unconventional instruments (brooms, plastic tubing, matchboxes) to generate the most alluring kind of analog, democratic symphony.

It’s in this last observation that audiences pick up the narrative thread of “Stomp.” The ideology tightly woven through two hours of a diverse cast using pedestrian objects to make art is, in its own ironic way, quietly revolutionary. Press materials describe the work’s impact as “a journey through sound, a celebration of the everyday and a comic interplay of characters wordlessly communicating through dance and drum.”

There is no hierarchy in this production. There’s no stratum of entitlement. Instead “Stomp” is a celebration of variety, universality and the simple joy of being really, really noisy in a world that often swallows our individual presence whole. Broadway in Chicago’s all-too brief run of the latest touring incarnation absolutely defies cynicism, offering a sonic and visual delight for audiences of all ages.

The cast is uniformly winning, a nonstop whirlwind of coordinated movement and percussion that serves as an instrument in its own right. The chemistry and talent is so compelling, it’s hard to single out favorites, but Cammie Griffin is a maelstrom. The ugly faces and dirty sounds she imparts with every committed step are a thing of visceral beauty. This gal is committed and you’ll want to get animal with her.

And while it’s typically bad form to use a review as a platform for shameless flirting, I’d like to send a special message to John Angeles. If by chance you have a thing for middle-aged theater critics, I might know just the lady for you (hint: it’s me). Angeles is a dynamic and gifted talent that demands attention. He is also impossibly sexy. The disappointed groans emanating from the crowd as he made his final exit stage right provided solid evidence that this reviewer was not the only one smitten.

In a series of percussive vignettes that don’t let up for a sonic second, highlights include an interlude featuring several performers strapped into harnesses. These cast members dangle from the ceiling, literally bouncing off walls as they play an unorthodox xylophone of kitchen utensils, garbage and metal. It’s like Cirque du Soleil meets the street. Another scene features several male cast members atop giant garbage can stilts like so many tactile, attractive Godzillas.

The show runs nearly two hours without intermission and every moment is mesmerizing. Not a second is wasted and the properly engaged audience member (because the sanity must be questioned of those tuned out) will not have cognitive space to worry about a drink refill or bathroom break. The experience is transformative for even the most seasoned theatergoer. A constant battle against the urge to jump on stage and join the troupe is the only uncomfortable feeling to be expected.

Chicago theater community: I wish we had longer to avail ourselves of more “Stomp,” but we don’t. Buy your tickets before the opportunity ends.