A silvery gentleman sidled up to me at the intermission of the new musical revue Senior Class, now making its world debut at Center REP. “Aren’t you a little young for this production?” he asked. I responded, “I just want to see what I’m in for,” and indeed that’s part of what television comedy writer Saul Illson had in mind what he sat down to write a show that speaks to the new senior citizen — vital, curious, and looking forward to another twenty to thirty years of active participation in the world. As Illson points out in the opening number, there are a quite a few foxy oldsters we don’t think of as seniors, folks such as Paul McCartney, Goldie Hawn, and Al Pacino, people who are still working, contributing, and — very important — being sexy. “Robert Redford  can go see a movie at half the price!” exclaims one character, and when it comes to Raquel Welch (63), “every brick is still in place.” So while serious issues of old age such as illness, bereavement, and neglect are touched upon, the mood for Illson’s show is set before the curtain even rises, as the usual prerecorded announcement asking audience members to silence their cell phones and pagers extends to pacemakers, oxygen tents, and glucose monitors.
Audiences accustomed to the new wave of musical theater — shows such as Shockheaded Peter, Rent, or Urinetown — may be disappointed with a pretty straight-ahead song and dance show that harks back in its structure to an earlier time. There’s a dedication to rhyming at all costs that leads to some forced moments (San Diego/lumbago being one of the more deliberately humorous examples) and the dances aren’t giving Bob Fosse a run for his sequins. That said, Senior Class is sweeter and more affecting than I expected, both in its wry moments and its sad ones.
Much of the credit for that latter goes to Kelly Houston as Gus, who sings two of the saddest songs — “I Wasn’t Prepared,” about the unexpected death of a wife, and the guilt-inducing “One Mother,” about a woman neglected by her adult children. It’s obvious why Houston has been working in radio and nightclubs for more than thirty years. He has a deeply wonderful voice, more than strong enough to carry “One Mother” without the superfluous chorus that comes in near the end. Illson’s sad songs are a little more awkward than his upbeat ones, but Houston dignifies them, and his spirited rendition of the funny “My Grandchildren and Me” is the show’s walk-out-humming song.
Obviously death is going to be a concern in this show, but it’s handled in unexpected ways. Other than in Gus’ song, the widows and widowers remember the departed with tongue-in-cheek or loving ruefulness. Peggy (Phoebe Moyer) sings about the travails of getting her husband’s ashes to the wake after the airline loses her suitcase with the urn, and Marie (wry, big-voiced Alma Sayles) admits that she still talks to her dead husband (“I tell him when there’s a sale at Sears. He loves sales”).
Some of the choices could stand more work. The dismissive reference to a gay son in “I’ve Had a Wonderful Life” is a cheap shot. The meshing of Marie’s song about talking to her dead husband and Frank’s song about falling in love is a brave effort, but doesn’t click; the tone of the two otherwise fine songs is simply too different. Behind the clumsiness, though, lie concepts that need to see a wider audience, such as the dismissal of the idea that “Love is only for the young/Your song has already been sung.” Why, in our culture, is love among older people (especially new love) considered superfluous, “cute,” or lecherous? Is it part of our larger, shameful dismissal of older people as lively, emotional beings?
Who knows what the coterie of preteens who came to see their young friend Nicole Younce thought of the “Senior Citizen Test,” where the actors list such senior shibboleths as Brylcreem and Dewey beating Truman, but the rest of the audience was chuckling appreciatively and keeping score. The audience also loved “Don’t Leave It All to Your Children,” which exhorts seniors to enjoy their savings because their heirs will only “piss it away,” while the few folks my age squirmed in their seats.
As the Boomers watch their diets and do their yoga, there’s a growing market for theater that either features or deals with active Golden Agers. Senior Class joins Menopause the Musical and The Fabulous Palm Spring Follies (where the youngest showgirl is a baby at 56) in the ranks of shows that glory in age. As Frank (Ron Evans) explains, “What I like about retirement is that it’s like graduating without having to find a job!” Clearly there’s more to advanced age than relegation to the rocking chair; in Senior Class it’s a hard-won opportunity to celebrate everything one has done, learned, and become.