Stepping Out/by Richard Harris/directed by Stan Mazin/Group rep/through March 24
How do you stage the performance of an amateur tap class believably? Should the big contest production number be like the finale of A Chorus Line, the way I have seen it done on the Equity stage, or should it be shown less professional, somewhat flawed, in a more play it as it comes fashion? The thing to remember about the script of Stepping Out is that it's not a musical, but a play with music and it's about a community tap class for adults - which means that most are amateurs who will learn to tap but not so well that they will go on to have a dance career! Director Stan Mazin has wisely chosen the more realistic approach, keeping his actors focused on the play and on characterization in Group rep's current production of Stepping Out onstage through March 24. For all its worth, great tapping is always fun to watch - and it's not bad here when you stop and consider that most of the actors have never tapped before their prep for this show. Urgent to keep in mind: in Stepping Out, the play's the thing, about problematic people and how they support one another. It's an ode to friendship, to community living, warts and all, and to the joy a little once-a-week evening class can bring into people's lives. Group rep's production certainly gives us all of this, while displaying miles of heart.
Some may argue that the Northern British accents are not consistent or too thick. I personally had no problem with them and like the effort to keep the ambiance as originally scripted. At the heart is the class and how the various students, who, uncomfortable with one another at first, adapt little by little to the individual hangups while also learning to move their feet in rhythm to the music as taught by Mavis (Suzy London). Not only are they uneasy about their ability to dance but more urgently with themselves personally. Take Andy (Julie Davis), for example, who lives with an abusive husband. She is retiring and defensive, making several excuses for her physical injuries. When she spots Geoffrey (Michael Robb) - the only man in the class - who recently lost his wife, somehow a friendship begins to develop. Sadly, though, this attraction never fully blossoms, or at least during the action of the play. It is these individual problems that surface naturally that give the play its heartwarming appeal. Or take overweight/loudmouth Sylvia (Laurie Morgan) who may be unhappy with a dishonest boyfriend or Maxine (Michelle Bernath) who uses her salesmanship to cover up her misery with her undisciplined kids or with Mavis herself whose man troubles have placed her into an awkward, terribly unwanted position. The effects of all the individual problems flare up in Act II in a very long scene right before the finale. Despite its lengthiness, the scene is a dramatic potboiler and a wonderful catharsis for the stressed-out students as they struggle to cope and make their dance collaboration in the contest a fruitful one. The show must go on!
All the performances under Mazin's superior direction, are just terrific - one of the best ensemble efforts in the Group rep's season. Apart from standouts London, Bernath, Morgan, Robb and Davis, super praise to Irene Chapman who is spot on perfect as the prudish accompanist Mrs. Fraser and to the rest of the company that includes Colette Rosario, Cynthia Bryant, Sandy Mansson and Kathleen Taylor. Kudos to Chris Winfield for his simple but believable set design and to Emily Doyle for her great costumes particularly for the finale and a couple of choice outfits worn hilariously by Sandy Mansson as the obsessive/compulsive Vera.
If you've ever experienced the comaraderie that develops in a night class, you will love Stepping Out for its just plain human sense of 'anything's possible'!