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Stepping Out (01/11/1987 - 03/15/1987)


 

New York Daily News: "Dance 10, Human Interest 3"

There is a mistaken notion that plays that open in New York make important statements about Art and Life. A sensible person realizes that New York is really a tryout town, where plays are presented in the hope that they will be suitable for amateur and community theaters across the country.

Good news for the boondocks! There's no need to revive "Stage Door" next season. You can do "Stepping Out" instead.

Richard Harris (not the actor) has written a modest play about seven women and a man, of various ages, classes and sizes, who take tap dancing lessons in a London church after work. We watch them over a winter and spring as they prepare for a public performance.

We learn only a smidgen about each character, but we do see them moving beyond their initial self-concern into a growing involvement with the others until, by the performance, they are a close-knit if motley ensemble.

In London, I suspect, the emphasis was on the characters. Here it has been directed by Tommy Tune, so of course it becomes a show about tap dancing.

Only a few of the actors have made the characters full enough that we can believe they have a life outside the church basement. In this production most of them are cartoon figures, which makes it awkward at those few moments when Harris tries to treat them seriously.

The most believable figures are Don Amendolia as the shy, overweight man whose slightest gestures are funny and poignant; Victoria Boothby as a prim, waspish pianist; Janet Eilber as a nervous young woman who asks, "I wonder if it takes as much courage to live alone as with someone else"; and Carole Shelley as a tough businesswoman who sells the other women dance accessories.

Meagen Fay is extremely funny as a snob, Sheryl Sciro properly wacky as a spaced-out young tramp, but these performances verge on caricature. I could not tell if Marcell Rosenblatt's gleeful amateurishness was her own or that of her character.

Once the dancing starts, of course, "Stepping Out" becomes wonderful fun. Tune can make as much from inept dancers as he can from pros.

David Jenkins has designed a church hall with a glimpse of the street that has a strong London feeling. Neil Spisak's costumes add to the comedy.

"Stepping Out" is full of innocent amusement, but you can't help wondering whether, when they do it next year in Kankakee, the laughs won't be a lot more solid if the characters are more believable.


New York Daily News
01/12/1987

New York Post: "So You Want To Be Fred Astaire"

The very real pleasure given by the Richard Harris play "Stepping Out," which started stepping at the John Golden Theater last night, is a curious one.

Curious, simply because it is not primarily theatrical. It is the natural joy we take in seeing the triumph of an underdog - or, in this case, a whole kennelful, an entire pack of underdogs.

Let me explain. This English play is set in a church hall in North London. Mavis, an ex-chorus-girl, accompanied by her intractable termagant of a pianist, is giving an adult-education program in tap-dancing.

Her class is classy, or rather a mixed cross-section - carefully mixed, crossed, and sectioned - of the stratified English class system.

There are seven women and one man. They all have different stories to tell (and eventually, don't worry, they will tell them), and they all have different motives for coming to the class.

Mavis wants them all to have a good time in their dancing, but none of them, except perhaps for a fat and jolly West Indian woman, is happy at home. Even Mavis isn't happy at home - and the rigid Mrs. Fraser also has her own guilty secret.

The play is openly manipulative. It has a puppy-like need to be liked, and to be thought funny and touching by turn. Of course, it is not. It is merely coarse, clumsy, and maudlin.

Its jokes are signaled a mile off. Its characters have the depth of waxworks in cartoon. Their troubles are agony-column conventional.

As we get to know them - a lonely widower here, a battered wife there, a woman whose second husband is rather more than a father to her daughter, or a little tax inspector sacrificing her life to her mother - they seem to become less interesting rather than more.

The structure - the revelation of character in an ongoing setting - seems like a cooled down version of "Steaming," that earlier British import about a Ladies' Turkish Bath.

Even the actual texture of "Stepping Out" - as we watch one interminable tap-dance lesson after another, with each student seemingly more maladroit than the next - has an almost numbing consistency to it.

Yet Mr. Harris has done one mildly clever thing, and one wildly clever thing.

It is mildly clever to realize that audiences, accustomed to TV series, have been conditioned to an episodic structure that concentrates on diverse characters relating to one another in a specific setting.

"Stepping Out" could be the pilot for a TV series about a tap-dance studio. It is probably as good a place as a cruise liner, a hotel, or a bar.

But what is wildly clever has been Harris's unerring judgment in discerning that we are all klutzes at heart, or at feet. We all want to be Fred Astaire, and we will root for any one with the guts to have a go at it.

The fact that these people are taking dance classes, with the extraordinary disadvantage of no discernible innate talent, warms our soul of soles.

Halfway through, Mavis is asked to get them together for a charity show. And, against all odds except dramatic requirement, they triumph.

And - honestly, I kid you not - however much we may have suffered during the play, and it is not easy going, our hearts go out to them in their triumph. They - our clumsy surrogates - have made it. And for us - the little people in the audience.

Smart! Also smart is Tommy Tune's staging (the effect is not so much different from the London production, although the acting is more TV-style effective than in the lower-keyed original) and the go-up-and-get-them performances.

The foot-in-mouth dancing is beautifully handled by everyone, not least by the show's one genuine dancer, apart from Pamela Sousa's sweet-suffering Mavis: Janet Eilber, a former star with Martha Graham.

Miss Eilber, as a neurotic Englishwoman with two left feet, is only one of the evening's superior caricatures, including Carole Shelley as a wisecracking storekeeper, Marcell Rosenblatt as a fluffily excitable tax inspector, Cherry Jones as a tender-hearted nurse, and Don Amendolia as the dour, evasive widower.

I didn't really admire "Stepping Out" in London, and I don't really admire it now, but on both occasions I loved the show's finale (Tune's new choreography is a modest plus here, by the way), and, more important, I loved the total concept of amateurism that gives that finale its fillip of heart.

The play, if you like, is as ramshackle as the dancing it celebrates; but if you relax you can identify with its gutsiness, actually root for its people, and accept and embrace the show's one curious but, as we say, very real pleasure.


New York Post
01/12/1987

New York Times: "'Stepping Out,' Staged by Tommy Tune"

Ten minutes before the end of ''Stepping Out,'' the new English play at the Golden, a group of Londoners from many humdrum walks of life suddenly meld into a high-stepping chorus line. For two acts we've followed these characters, the middle-class participants in a weekly adult dance class, as they've prepared for this golden moment at center stage in a charity pageant. Once the spectacle arrives, it doesn't disappoint. Tommy Tune, the director of ''Stepping Out,'' sweeps aside the play's gloomy basement set for glitzy backdrops, top hats, white gloves, canes and, with due respect to Michael Bennett, mirrors. The aging klutzes of the dance class are reborn - not as tap stars worthy of Mr. Tune's previous ''My One and Only,'' but as a team of proud amateurs sharing the exhilaration of reaching a once unattainable goal.

The song that accompanies the finale is ''Shaking the Blues Away,'' and, while it achieves that aim, it does so not a moment too soon. The audience at ''Stepping Out'' has waited two hours to receive its 10 sustained minutes of fun. What precedes the play's joyful chorus-line payoff is not, as one might wish, ''A Chorus Line'' - or, for that matter, even ''Smile'' - but is instead a less authentic variant of Nell Dunn's ''Steaming,'' the last hit West End sitcom about female consciousness raising to reach Broadway. This time, the playwright is a man, the boulevard writer Richard Harris (''The Business of Murder''), and, the setting being a church hall rather than a steam bath, the characters don't let down anything more revealing than their hair.

Most of ''Stepping Out'' consists of innocuous chitchat among acquaintances whose personalities are less precisely defined than their primitive tap technique. One trait per person is the order of Mr. Harris's characterizations. His women include a loudmouthed shop owner (Carole Shelley), a nouveau-riche busybody (Meagen Fay), an overweight West Indian with ''music in her soul'' (Carol Woods), a gum-chewing vulgarian (Sheryl Sciro), a prim nurse (Cherry Jones) and so on. The class's token man (Don Amendolia) is an ineffectual insurance salesman, while the instructor (Pamela Sousa) and pianist (Victoria Boothby) are an equally cliched former chorus girl and crochety, teetotaling spinster. For the sake of drama and conflict - or maybe just to forestall the finale - Mr. Harris arbitrarily assigns these players a few temper tantrums and dark revelations (an abortion, a brutal husband, a hidden past or insecurity) during the more confrontational second act.

The conversations might be more entertaining if they featured a larger assortment of jokes than the few scattered wisecracks dependent on references to armpits and men's underwear. It's possible, too, that we'd care more about the characters' various hopes and fears - and find their final group triumph more personal and moving - if the roles were fleshed out by a crack acting ensemble like the one Mr. Tune assembled for Caryl Churchill's more sophisticated English comedy of the 1980's, ''Cloud 9.'' In ''Stepping Out,'' two accomplished comediennes, Ms. Shelley and Ms. Fay, are asked to oversell their jokes with broad winks, while other performers are miscast and, in some cases, suffer accent slippage. The saddest waste is Janet Eilber, the lovely one-time Martha Graham dancer who must gamely sulk her way through Mr. Harris's most thankless part, that of an unhappily married anti-bomb protester.

Everyone comes alive during the dance rehearsals: Mr. Amendolia and Ms. Fay are the funniest at inept tapping, while Ms. Sousa has the most graceful sustained solo. But the bulk of the evening is danceless, and Mr. Tune has invested so little energy in the dialogue scenes that he seems as uninterested in them as we are. During one particularly perfunctory exchange, an irrelevant yet prolonged discussion of the perils of owning a bicycle in contemporary London, ''Stepping Out'' itself seems on the verge of nodding out. Mercifully, the show-stopping finale arrives soon after, but can a show-stopper still be called a show-stopper when there isn't a show to stop?


New York Times
01/12/1987

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