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.