In 2007 the public relations department of an American basketball team, the New Jersey Jets, decided to add a new element to their half-time entertainment. They would form a dance team comprising over-60s – “senior citizens”, to use that rather ghastly phrase. You can just about see the light bulbs going off in the board room, even from this distance in time and space. A documentary team came on board too, naturally, and followed the process of auditioning and training the Jersey NETsationals. The film Gotta Dance was released in 2008.
A project to empower a cohort that often feels invisible or a cynical marketing gimmick? Hard to say. Possibly a bit of both. Probably more of the latter.
The cast of Hayes Theatre Co’s Half Time. Photo © David Hooley
A fictionalised music-theatre adaptation premiered in 2015, was revised in the hopes of a Broadway run that never eventuated and opened as Half Time in New Jersey in 2018. Unfortunately, it could perhaps better be titled Half Baked. Its many creatives, who include top-tier book writer Chad Beguelin (Aladdin, The Prom), found no persuasive way to balance the competing claims of feel-good comedy and social message and most of the perfectly pleasant songs are instantly forgettable.
So why stage it? Because it puts before the public a set of fabulous actors of a certain age who belong to a cohort that often feels invisible. First and foremost there is Nancye Hayes, appearing in the theatre that bears her name and rightly getting the kind of entrance applause that’s rare in today’s theatre. There’s Zoe Carides, who despite the superficial stereotype that is her character Camilla, gives a marvellous turn as a woman who doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks about her choice of (much younger) boyfriend. There’s Dolores Dunbar, whose Joanne will not go quietly into insignificance, and Joy Miller and Gabrielle Chan and Deni Gordon and Donna Lee and Wendy-Lee Purdy and Eric Rasmussen.
Deni Gordon, Coby Njoroge and Chaska Halliday in Hayes Theatre Co’s Half Time. Photo © David Hooley
It’s a big group, all of whom deserve their moment in the light. Some get touches that give their characters a little depth and texture but too often Half Time resorts to cliché and easy laughs, which means it commits the very sins it sets out to redress.
The easiest laugh is that the group’s members, who audition thinking they may be asked to be a bit of tap or swing, are told they must learn a hip-hop routine. Cue dismay on the part of the oldies and guffaws from the audience. Oldies! Hip-hop! My aching sides. Presumably the goal is to hold up a mirror to an unthinking society. It doesn’t work.
Within moments the seniors want to keep going and they are supported in this by the young woman charged with teaching them. Tara, played passionately by Stefanie Jones, has “aged out” of the basketball team’s dance troupe because she is an ancient 27. This second seed of ageism is planted but not given a lot of water and rather withers. Still, Jones is a lovely, warm presence.
Eventually, of course, the team masters its routine and has fun with Madison Lee’s choreography, carefully calibrated to the skills of those no longer in the first flush of youth.
Tom Sharah and Zoe Carides in Hayes Theatre Co’s Half Time. Photo © David Hooley
Given such a large number of stories to tell Half Time becomes not much more than a series of vignettes. Eric Rasmussen’s Ron gets a sweet number when he remembers dancing swing; Deni Gordon’s wise Bea gets the best of the songs when with her granddaughter Kendra (Chaska Halliday); Gabrielle Chan is a wistful, delicate Mae; and Dolores Dunbar gives deceptively upbeat Joanne the gallantry of the never-say-die survivor.
Under Helen Dallimore’s direction everyone puts their best foot forward, if you’ll excuse the expression, to give life to this sketch-book of a show. Tom Sharah, who takes a couple of small roles, is particularly amusing as a dismissive morning TV show host.
Nancye Hayes and the cast of Hayes Theatre Co’s Half Time. Photo © David Hooley
Kate Beere’s simple, effective set starts in a waiting room clearly marked as such, and presumably that’s a nice little nod to the concept of God’s waiting room. The music playing over their sound system is an orchestral version of The Sound of Silence, which starts, as we all know, with “Hello darkness my old friend”. Another brief, sly touch.
It was pleasing, too, to be introduced to the hip-hop dance term tutting. Look it up on YouTube. It’s fantastic.
Half Time is at Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney until May 2