He Is What He Is

In his bio for his new musical Half Time, choreographer-cum-director extraordinaire Jerry Mitchell particularly highlights his two past pieces of Tony Award-winning work: the most recent Broadway revival of La Cage Aux Folles, and the runaway hit Kinky Boots.

(Get it? Runaway? Because the show’s about shoes? WHERE’S MY PULITZER, JOEY?!?!)

Anywho, cognitively revisiting these two titles in the context of his latest made me realize that he tends to be drawn to similar material: he seems to enjoy bringing to life stories of song-and-dance weaseling their way into communities not commonly associated with such flamboyant spectacle.

Though La Cage Aux Folles is of course set in the most musical of atmospheres, the main drama revolves around bridging the divide between gregarious sequins and high-society seriousness. The central family lives in the world of the former, yet they must prepare — by tempering their bombastic selves — for the arrival of their straight-laced (and just straight altogether) in-laws. Yet by the end, the allure of the bright lights and big stages works its magic on these proverbial Smiths, who tap into their repressed joy through dopey showgirls (and guys!) and gooey gowns.

Kinky Boots concerns an equally-uptight family, proprietaries of a shoe factory in working-class England. The son dreams of starrier horizons, yet also feels a responsibility to ensure the continued survival of the legacy that was his father’s life work. With business down in the doldrums, he detects a market inefficiency; instead of competing with everyone else mindlessly churning out boring business attire, why not jazz up the place by offering more colorful options that take the form of the title’s Kinky Boots, aka hot high heels, baby. This corporate spruce-up inevitably opens new avenues of expression for its employees and the conservative neighborhood they occupy.

Finally, Half Time, now playing at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, casts actors of a certain age in roles commonly considered too physically-demanding for older generations. Even though geriatrics populate seats in theaters the world over, they rarely see themselves in the spectaculars they habitually attend; musicals are defined by toned bodies at the peak of their powers. And yet, why should the thrills of tuneful movement be reserved for the young? If you’re still kicking, then you should damn well try high-kicking. These blue-haired ladies (and one dude) strap on their dancing shoes and strive to serve as an alternative to normal cheerleading squads. Their goal: to perform for an unsuspecting crowd at half time of a basketball game. By leaving their sedate lives behind for the glitz and glam of the stage, they realize it’s never too late to discover, or rediscover, the natural melody of life coursing through ALL walks of life.

And that’s what these three entries in Jerry Mitchell’s oeuvre share. Musicals, a genre that revels in over-the-top revelry, boasts an uncanny ability to  capture the outsized portions of life; their heightened external realities tap their way into tapping into the overflowing interiority of emotions waiting to burst. Mitchell channels this force in the direction of people who perhaps need it most. Dropping our civil guards and giving ourselves over to the power of the beat allows us to feel the enchanting music brimming underneath the static surfaces of our existence.

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