‘Lunch at the Piccadilly’ offers humorous food for thought

Add the ages of the guys behind the local premiere of “Lunch at the Piccadilly,” and you realize they are collectively older than the United States of America.

So composer Mike Craver, author Clyde Edgerton, director Steve Umberger and Tim Rogers – director of mission advancement for Aldersgate Retirement Community, the production’s principal sponsor – are the right quartet to put a musical about senior citizens on its feet.

Well, back on its feet. The version that opens Thursday at Booth Playhouse follows a decade of work and five prior outings.

“I would say it’s finished,” Edgerton remarked tentatively. “I have loved working on it – I enjoy watching the audience reactions – and I could piddle with it forever. But I would have forgotten this thing a long time ago if Steve hadn’t stayed with it and looked for other places to put it on and bugged us to keep working.”

The story began as a 2003 novel by Edgerton, who helped his aunt make the transition to an assisted living center and reworked experiences for the book. A major male character, a would-be country musician, writes lyrics that end up in the book’s appendix. (“Ain’t Got No Problems,” a lament about having nothing to lament, and “Baloney, Bacon and Beer” made their way to the show.)

In the play, residents of Rosehaven realize their mom-and-pop-style care center will be sold out from under them to a big corporation. They band together to ... nope, no spoilers here.

“This is a subject people never want to talk about, but it’s central to their lives – our lives,” says Umberger, the former Charlotte Repertory Theatre director whose last full production here came more than a decade ago.

“I don’t have a single conversation about this show with someone who doesn’t say, ‘I have an aunt in a nursing home’ or ‘My parents are getting older now, and ... ’ People need solutions, and in ‘Piccadilly,’ that’s a small home where a caretaker lives in. The residents want to retain control of their lives.”

Umberger first directed an adaptation of an Edgerton novel (“Raney”) 25 years ago. UNC grads Edgerton and Craver, who was once a member of the Red Clay Ramblers, had crossed paths in Chapel Hill in the 1970s. So when the idea to adapt “Piccadilly” came up, they all became natural collaborators – and re-collaborators on a project that kept shifting its shape.

Edgerton sent Umberger a first draft of a script a decade ago, and Craver wrote songs on spec. Fayetteville’s Cape Fear Regional Theatre premiered it in 2006; later it got a reading in Fayetteville, a production at Parkways Playhouse in Burnsville and a reading at York Theatre in New York, which does 30 readings a year of new musicals (most famously “Avenue Q”). Finally, the team launched “Piccadilly” in 2011 at Festival Stage in Winston-Salem.

“The novel is a great slice of life, based on a man who has to become the ‘parent’ of an older woman who’s dependent on him,” says Umberger. “A play needs to resolve things more. This borders on farce – with serious elements – and we realized along the way that the fun the characters had was the spine of the piece.”

As a racial subplot came and went and characters appeared and disappeared, Craver’s songs – he estimates he has written 30 to 35 for the show over 10 years – changed to fit the tone.

“I would call ‘Piccadilly’ a play with music, rather than a true musical,” says Craver, who won a 1988 Drama Desk Award for “Oil City Symphony” in its New York run. “The music doesn’t dominate; the book is the thing, with the songs integrated into it.

“There’s a lot of mix-and-match going on; when you concoct something like this, you throw in everything but the kitchen sink, then start taking it out. The version Charlotte sees will in some ways be a new one.”

Gerontologist Lyndall Hare introduced Umberger to Rogers, who said Aldersgate’s decision to sponsor this production “was a no-brainer.” The care center will hold talkbacks after performances Thursday and Friday, plus two “community conversations” at its Shamrock Drive property Sept. 22 and Oct. 6. The first will be about the move toward age-friendly communities, with architect Allen Moore as keynote speaker; the second will be a call to action about creating such places from folks at AARP, Aldersgate and the city of Charlotte.

“Every day, 10,000 people in this country turn 65,” says Rogers. “We’re not prepared for what that means with housing, transportation and other services. Steve told us that (in talkbacks elsewhere) perfect strangers would talk well past the norm about their experiences. He thinks there can be more to this someday than just putting on a funny musical about old folks.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘Lunch at the Piccadilly’

WHEN: Sept. 17-Oct. 4 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday.

WHERE: Booth Playhouse, 130 N. Tryon St.

TICKETS: $10-42.

DETAILS: 704-372-1000, blumenthalarts.org.