The premise of the new musical comedy Gotta Dance, which is trying out in Chicago this winter with an eye toward a fall 2016 Broadway bow, is detailed by the scenery before the show even begins: A video screen onstage shows the classified ad placed by a New Jersey NBA team, recruiting performers over 60 for a halftime hip-hop dance crew.
With that bit of unwieldy exposition done and dusted, the top of the show drops us in medias res at the auditions, where we meet several of the eventual dancers. A few are richly drawn (Georgia Engel is a priceless commodity as a sweet-tempered kindergarten teacher with unexpected taste in music), but most of these characters are reduced to a single trait even as they complain about society’s reductive view of the senior set.
Gotta Dance is inspired by true events; the “New Jersey Cougars” are a stand-in for the New Jersey (now Brooklyn) Nets, who recruited the real-life senior dance team the show is based on, and many of its members were present at Gotta Dance’s opening night on Monday. But for all of the show’s lip service to empowerment and embracing one’s age, this musical has yet to shake the feeling of gimmickry and pandering (though if pandering to ticket-buying audiences is the goal, catering to the older demographic is probably a canny move).
There’s a boatload of talent behind this show—so much, in fact, that you wonder if the overpopulated creative team is inadvertently giving Gotta Dance a created-by-committee sheen. With writing contributions by the Elf team of Chad Beguelin, Bob Martin and Matthew Sklar plus Nell Benjamin (whose on-the-nose lyrics could make you long for metaphor), with an additional pair of songs completed by Marvin Hamlisch before he died, there are a lot of chefs standing around this pot. And that’s even before director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell and his co-choreographer Nick Kenkel come onto the scene.
Ultimately, the show doesn’t yet have much to distinguish it from any of countless other let’s-put-on-a-show underdog narratives. To piggyback on the basketball theme, Gotta Dance has perfected a few sure-scoring plays. But it’ll need a lot more coordination to win the game.
Bank of America Theatre. Book by Bob Martin & Chad Beguelin. Music by Matthew Sklar. Lyrics by Nell Benjamin. Additional music by Marvin Hamlisch. Directed by Jerry Mitchell. With André De Shields, Georgia Engel, Stefanie Powers, Lillias White, Haven Burton, Lori Tan Chinn, Joanna A. Jones, Nancy Ticotin.