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‘Gotta Dance’ a feel-good showcase for stars with a lifetime of skill

Georgia Engel and the cast of "Gotta Dance" at its Chicago world-premiere engagement in 2015. | PHOTO BY MATTHEW MURPHY

Think of “Gotta Dance” as “A Chorus Line” reconfigured for the AARP set and freshly sealed with a “light and lively” label. In fact, that is all you really need to know about this new musical comedy, now in its debut at Chicago’s Bank of America Theatre, with a Broadway opening planned for this coming Fall.

A sweet, mostly light-hearted, entirely predictable feel-good show, it is infused with many of the familiar messages that boil down to “you’re only as old as you think you are,” and (to paraphrase the lyrics of a song) “you can’t go backward, but you can go on.” That’s about as deep as it gets.

As it turns out, the most beguiling aspect of “Gotta Dance” is its casting. The musical is a winning showcase for a slew of veteran performers who, far too often, are excluded from Broadway story lines or consigned to minor character roles. Here they get a chance to display everything they’ve learned during the course of their long careers. And in the case of  Georgia Engel (familiar to TV audiences for her Emmy-nominated work in “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”), the actress is given full rein to steal the show, which she does most handily. But more about that a bit later.

The show is a fictional reworking of director Dori Berinstein’s 2008 documentary film about the New Jersey Nets (here renamed the Cougars) and the basketball team’s efforts to boost flagging attendance by creating the first-ever hip-hop halftime dance team comprised only of those 60 and older. Its book by Chad Beguelin (“Aladdin”) and Bob Martin (“The Drowsy Chaperone”) is economical. And while its music, by Matthew Sklar (“Elf”), is varied if less than memorable, its lyrics, by Nell Benjamin (“Legally Blonde”), are clever and colloquial. As it happens, however, two of the best songs in the show (“Dorothy/Dottie” and “The Prince of Swing”) are the work of Marvin Hamlisch (yes, he of “A Chorus Line” fame), who worked on the show before his untimely death in 2012.

Not surprisingly, it all begins with an audition, as a room full of “seniors” do their best to follow the moves demonstrated by Tara (Haven Burton). At 27, she has been deemed too old to still be a sexy Cougarette, but has been tapped to serve as coach for this crazy venture dreamed up by the team’s bitchy vice president of marketing, Alison Prager (Tracy Jai Edwards).

There are mirrors (of course), and bungled moves, and jokes about infirmities. And some applicants are disqualified. But by the end, 10 brave souls remain, all with a passion for dance, and with experience that ranges from intensive ballet training to social dancing with a beloved spouse. It is only after they get their contracts that they learn they will have to perform hip-hop — a language foreign to nearly all of them.

The sole man in the group is Ron (Andre De Shields in wonderfully mellow form), a widower and a master swing dancer. The women run the gamut.

Two are genuine “cougars”: the bitter, still attractive divorcee Joanne (Stefanie Powers), whose husband left her for a younger woman, and Camilla (the fabulous singer-dancer Nancy Ticotin, with legs to die for), in a steamy affair with her twentysomething salsa partner (Alexander Aguilar). There also is the full-figured Bea (the easily winning Lillias White), whose granddaughter, Kendra (Joanna A. Jones, a sassy looker), is a Cougerette in need of some life coaching. And there is the rather inept but charmingly upbeat Mae (Lori Tan Chinn, who gives a knockout rendering of “The Waters Rise,” a moving song about her husband’s deterioration from Alzheimer’s).

But it is Engel, as the girlishly prim but clearly eccentric kindergarten teacher who dances to an inner Tupac beat, who will wow you. Everything she does is hilarious, true and unexpected. And while no one will ever mistake “Gotta Dance” for “Hamilton,” that guy named Lin-Manuel Miranda should probably have crafted the role of Martha Washington for Engel. She is a hoot, and great fun to watch.

Director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell (of “Kinky Boots” renown) brings his usual polished professionalism and a spirit of Mr. Positivity to the whole project. He knows how to make an audience happy simply by deftly dancing around anything terribly new or challenging. That might be enough for some. Others might crave more than sitcom complexity.