Seniors dance hip hop — sort of — in this high-concept, sweet-natured but currently bland and unsurprising new musical comedy “Gotta Dance,” premiering in Chicago with a planned Broadway landing in the fall. Inspired by the true story of a senior dance team for the New Jersey (now Brooklyn) Nets, and based on Dori Bernstein’s 2008 documentary, the musical boasts a professional polish, some terrific comic timing from Georgia Engel and the pleasures of the always-watchable Andre De Shields. But it remains in search of what makes the story emotionally potent and meaningful.
For all its lip service to taking risks as you get older, the show needs to find some authentic soulfulness of its own — and not just in the music and the choreography.
Expectations are set low with the hopeful but jokey opening number “Just Look At Me Now,” which shows the folks trying out for the squad, fictionalized to be part of the New Jersey Cougars (a choice of nomenclature, by the way, that goes un-joked upon, even though there is a cougar subplot to come). The problem is that the number neither captures the hopefulness nor much of the humor. It’s an uninspired opening for a show that lacks creativity, edge and risk.
It’s easy to think of about ten better ideas than this generic opener, which reflects the start of the documentary. Let’s see a bit of the characters’ lives before they leave for the audition, for example. Or how about recognizing the similarities between this moment and the opening of “A Chorus Line,” and being inspired by the comedic possibilities?
The echoes of “Chorus Line” make you wonder about other songs the late Marvin Hamlisch might have crafted. While Matthew Sklar (“Elf,” “The Wedding Singer”) is the main composer, Hamlisch (who worked on “Gotta Dance” before he died) is credited with the two most character-driven songs, given here to Engel (who plays a schoolteacher who quotes Tupac) and De Shields (a widower who courted his wife by pronouncing himself the “Prince of Swing”). These two become the characters we care most about.
But character depth isn’t the strength of this very ensemble-oriented show with a book by Bob Martin (“The Drowsy Chaperone”) and Chad Beguelin (“Disney’s Aladdin,” “The Wedding Singer”). These are, alas, mostly paint-by-numbers people, albeit performed ably.
Played with the right mix of poise and mild venom by Stefanie Powers, Joanne wants revenge on the husband who left her for a younger woman. Mae (the infinitely likable but under-utilized Lori Tan Chinn) has a husband with Alzheimer’s and likes to go to the sock-hop night at the Chinese buffet (an event referred to as a mix of “Grease” and “Cocoon”). Bea (Lillias White) has a spoiled granddaughter who is dating the basketball team’s married center. All of these characters get songs, but none of them are memorable.
The most satisfying number, “Como No?,” belongs to Nancy Ticotin as Camilla, a Latina with a young boyfriend who dances a mean salsa. She has maybe the best joke of the night, complaining about being stereotyped while asking for her castanets.
There are, in fact, quite a few genuinely funny one-liners. But this is a show about an untraditional dance team that is never actually going to wow us with their moves. Instead we have to root for these people so much, care so much about what the dancing means to them, that when they break out the pops and twerks it produces something uplifting and feel-good.
It would help if director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell (who had great success launching “Kinky Boots” and “On Your Feet” in Chicago) had a better feel for hip-hop. But it would help even more if he remembered back to his days choreographing “The Full Monty,” another show that needed to focus on the character-based meaning of the dancing rather than the dances themselves.