The trial run of a musical comedy on its way to Broadway is probably not the first place you’d expect to find an exploration of systematic disempowerment. Reasonably so, given theater’s impressive batting average with Caucasians who can qualify for the senior discount (not that they need it). Still, as they say, where there’s a will there’s a way. With its ingenious conceit and pleasantly whitewashed vision of cultural crossover, “Gotta Dance” succeeds by holding up a mirror to its audience and encouraging them to like what they see.
Featuring the milieu of nursing homes and bingo nights, “Gotta Dance” is atmospherically suburban and unapologetically moral. The book’s myriad holes and limited number of locations occasionally stretch the limits of plausibility. With all good intentions, director Jerry Mitchell tends to make matters worse with his persistent use of LCD screens, which symbolically—and quite blatantly—ignore the musical’s overwhelming conviction that the old ways are best.
No matter. Predominantly comprised of stage vets, the ensemble more than makes up for any deficiencies. It seems any one of these fine actors is capable of an excellent turn and many get the opportunity to deliver. André De Shields is perfect as the randy Ron who pursues sweet, serene Dorothy (Georgia Engel in a mic-drop-worthy performance). Elsewhere, strengths are played to, as in the case of Nancy Ticotin’s sensual salsa moves and Lori Tan Chinn’s comic delivery. Holding her own amongst her more experienced castmates, Haven Burton emerges as the show’s true triple threat: a self-possessed talent whose attention to the nuances of character never wavers even while popping and locking or belting to the back row.
Given a few tweaks, “Gotta Dance” should properly slay in its final destination of New York, a town where the blue hairs are more adamant regarding their vitality and perpetual youthfulness than anywhere else. In the meantime, if you’ve been looking for a reason to take your grandma out for a night on the town—and see if she’s hip to 2Pac—look no further. (Kevin Greene)
Bank of America Theatre, 18 West Monroe, (800)775-2000, broadwayinchicago.com, $38-$105. Through January 17.