By Barry Reszel
Pop singers Ariana Grande and The Weeknd get “Gotta.”
Tell me something I need to know
Then take my breath and never let it go
If you just let me invade your space
I’ll take the pleasure, take it with the pain
And if in the moment I bite my lip
Baby in that moment you know this is
Something bigger than us and beyond bliss
Give me a reason to believe it
Cause if you want to keep me
You gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, got to love me harder
If Broadway in Chicago’s pre-Broadway run of uber-Director/Choreographer Jerry Mitchell‘s Gotta Dance is to reach musical theatre’s brightest lights, and sustain, it’s gotta gotta gotta fully embrace the depth and urgency of its title in the same way that Grande/Weekend’s “Love Me Harder” does.
The great news is that the elements are there for this talented creative team to do just that.
The cast features recognizable names aplenty (Stefanie Powers, Georgia Engel, Andre DeShields, Lori Tan Chinn, Haven Burton, Johanna A Jones and Nancy Ticotin), each of whom could easily hold his or her own on Dancing With the Stars. In Gotta Dance, they form a ragtag group of AARP members chosen to exploit the geriatric set in a hip hop dance routine at halftime of the NBA’s New Jersey Cougars
It’s a fun premise supported by a rather strong songbook by Matthew Sklar of Elf renown with clever lyrics of Nell Benjamin (Legally Blonde) and contributions from Marvin Hamlisch, his last work before his 2012 death. Some terrific individual performances, especially by Engel, DeShields, Ticotin and the gorgeous and talented Haven Burton as aged-out-at-27 dancer Tara, the group’s coach, highlight the overall strong ensemble.
Based on a true story recorded in a 2008 documentary of the same name (see more information here), Gotta Dance centers on seniors who love to dance, feel as though they have something to prove and are willing to battle a little prejudice, self-doubt and each other. But it isn’t until after making the squad that they find out they won’t be dancing tap, salsa or swing.
Its book by Chad Beguelin (Aladdin) and Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone) is fine in its storytelling. The chief problem is that the story tries to walk the line between authenticity and caricature. Characters too often come off as ingenuine and at times, the very premise of their gathering as a joke. This is particularly true of Powers’ Joanne; Tracy Jai Edwards‘ Alison Prager, the team’s too-belittling marketing head; and at times, Burton’s Tara.
That’s not necessarily a criticism of the actors’ abilities, but more an example of the impediments that must be overcome for this show to get to gotta. This reviewer believes that the real premise and people demand it all be played straight; the comedy will come naturally. And with each dancer offered a signature scene to showcase his or her story, Gotta Dance on Broadway needs to be more Chorus Line and less 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
All said, how lucky are Chicagoland musical theatre patrons to once again be called on to preview a show scheduled for the Great White Way (in fall 2016). Amazing Grace, Beaches, First Wives’ Club and Mitchell’s Kinky Boots are among other recent examples.
Here’s hoping the Chicago tryout encourages Mitchell and his team to add the necessary urgency and authenticity that get this new musical to “Gotta.” Then patrons will surely love it harder.
Broadway in Chicago presents “Gotta Dance” through January 17 at Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe Street, Chicago. More information and tickets ($38-$105) are available online here or by phone at (800) 775-2000.