Chicago Theatre Review
What I Did For Love
Gotta Dance – Broadway in Chicago
Just when naysayers may be thinking that the prolific Jerry Mitchell has run out of steam, this talented director/choreographer returns with yet another entertaining, high-spirited and sweetly inspirational Broadway bound musical that’s overflowing with warmhearted sincerity and vivacity. Based upon a real-life story (the subject of Dori Berinstein’s 2008 film documentary, of the same name), the musical tells about the formation of senior citizens’ hip hop dance troupe for a New Jersey basketball franchise. True, it’s a musical that centers around the elderly, an almost forgotten segment of our population, but it’s really a story about fresh starts at any age.
Featuring a script co-written by Tony nominated playwright Chad Beguelin (Disney’s Aladdin, The Wedding Singer) and Tony-winning actor and playwright Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone, Elf), with music by Matthew Sklar (Elf, The Wedding Singer) and lyrics by Neil Benjamin (Legally Blonde, The Explorers Club), the show also sports a couple numbers composed by the late, great Marvin Hamlisch. The structure of this musical is even similar to Hamlisch’s most famous Broadway success, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Chorus Line.” Both shows open as a group of eager dancers, in this case age 60 or over, who are all auditioning for a dance troupe who’ll be entertaining during the Cougar Basketball Team’s halftime show. By the end of the tryout, ten eager senior citizens have made the final cut. What they soon discover is that they’re going to be taken from their comfort zones (ballroom, tap, salsa) and taught hip hop, to which the cast sings the hilarious, “Who Wants to See That?” Also, as in “A Chorus Line,” each pension-aged prancer has a musical number that sheds light on his or her character, turning them into real, flesh-and-blood people.
Every character takes a spin in the spotlight. Georgia Engel, known primarily for her endearing characterizations on television’s “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Everybody Loves Raymond,” as well as playing the delightfully clueless Mrs. Tottendale in Broadway’s “The Drowsy Chaperone,” is the star of this production. Ms. Engel plays Dorothy, a sweet-natured kindergarten teacher who harbors a secret passion for hip hop music. As her alter-ego Dottie, Ms. Engel sneaks off to dance clubs where she’s learned all the right moves. When her hidden talent is discovered by the rest of the troupe they nominate Dottie as their dance captain.
Matching Ms. Engel’s star power is the lovable, multitalented Andre DeShields as Ron, “The Prince of Swing.” Using every ounce of his charm and unique style, Mr. DeShields caresses each note and lyric, while smoothly dancing his way into the hearts of both Dorothy and the audience. He proves to everyone that he’s not only “The Wiz,” but also the Wizard of “Swagger.” As Bea, Lillias White effortlessly shows that she’s still got it. This great lady, the star of so many Broadway hits, like “Dreamgirls” and “The Life,” not only has one of the best voices in the show but she can move and dance like a kid half her age. Ms. White brings sass, spunk, warmth and bundles of humor to her role. As a devoted grandmother, the actress sings three versions of a ballad entitled “Princess.” The first tells of her deep love for her granddaughter, Kendra; the second of her disappointment with the girl’s life choices; and, in the third reprise, her fierce support for her granddaughter’s change-of-heart decision comes full throttle. Whenever Ms. White takes the stage she brings down the house.
Star of TV, film and stage, Stefanie Powers leaves her indelible mark as Joanne, a former ballet dancer who gave up her career for marriage. Since the divorce, Joanne’s bitterness has taken over, and now she’s hellbent on showing her former husband what he’s missing, as she dances like a teenager in the basketball halftime show. In this role, Ms. Powers also gets to demonstrate her dynamic vocal prowess, as well. Nancy Ticotin is astoundingly powerful and sexy as the Latina cougar, Camilla. Whether in a duet with Ms. Powers, “20,000 People,” or paired in “Como No?,” a saucy salsa number with her boy toy, Fernando (played by hunky singer/dancer Alexander Aguilar), the spirited Ms. Ticotin is a real standout.
Veteran actress Lori Tan Chinn plays Mae, a sweet woman who finds joy in swing dancing while secretly coping with a husband suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Her solo, “The Waters Rise,” is a beautiful, poignant portrayal of love and devotion. The rest of the dance troupe is equally impressive, particularly Kay Walbye as the hilarious, visually-challenged Muriel. The younger performers are all impressive singer/dancers, especially beautiful Haven Burton as Tara, the 27-year-old who would rather be dancing than choreographing a senior citizens dance troupe, and Joanna A. Jones, who is simply captivating as feisty Kendra.
Since the New York opening isn’t projected until next Fall, there’s still plenty of time for Mr. Mitchell and his artistic staff to step back and take a fresh look at the piece. Right now it’s a pleasantly enjoyable, almost sitcom level musical. It’s a tried-and-true story of underdogs finally making it to the top. As such, it will bring a smile to everyone who sees it. However, although audiences of a certain age will love the show, in order to captivate younger patrons a few elements may need some tweaking. Sections of the hip hop choreography could be grittier and edgier. A couple musical numbers might need reconsidering and the storyline could stand to be spiced up with more high stake conflict. The senior characters are all lovable and delightful, but Tara, the musical’s driving force, needs a little more backstory. We eventually come to learn that she’s been unfairly forced out of dancing by Corporate, but Tara would be a stronger character if she was more than simply a frustrated choreographer.
Jerry Mitchell has again brought his unstoppable passion, pluck and pizzazz to direct and choreograph another Broadway bound musical. Like his recent productions of “On Your Feet,” “Kinky Boots,” “Legally Blonde” and “Hairspray,” to mention a few, Mr. Mitchell’s shows are wholesome and inspiring, while excitingly filled with memorable performances, toe-tapping songs and graceful, innovative choreography. This musical about individuals showing “What I Did For Love,” is a heartwarming story that will speak to everyone about the underdog finally making it. With just a little fine tuning, this promising production of “Gotta Dance” will become another “Gotta See.”
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented December 28-January 17 by Broadway in Chicago at the Bank of America Theatre, 18 W Monroe, Chicago.
Tickets are available at all Broadway in Chicago box offices, at all Ticketmaster retail locations, by calling the BIC Ticket Line at 800-775-2000 or by going to www.BroadwayInChicago.com.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com