Stepping Out

By Richard Harris
Directed by MaryLee Vitale
At the Boston Baked Theatre
Somerville, MA Closed

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

"Stepping Out" ought to be a surefire show for an ensemble like The Basic Theatre Company, currently performing at the Boston Baked Theatre in Davis Square. Richard Harris's script, which won The London Standard's Best Comedy award in 1986, is the upbeat saga of a church basement dance class, where all the participants get a chance to bare their souls and strut their stuff.

The teacher, Mavis (Lisa Veshecco), is an over-the-hill chorus girl whose personal life is a mess--- but she really loves to teach. She inspires her amateurs, and they reward her with school spirit and a touching concern for each other's welfare. The students are an assortment of ordinary types, most of them middle-aged and all but one of them women, who set themselves to learn show dancing just for the fun of it. There's Andy (Julia Radochia), a professional's wife who devotes herself to good causes but is -- for reasons we learn about late in the play--- repressed and on awkward terms with her body. Dorothy (Diane Gioseffi), has the ability to be a good dancer -- if only she could get in sync. Lynne (Ellen Stone), is a nurse who sees dancing as a way to leave stress and responsibility behind. Rose (Gamalia Pharms), a voluptuous middle-class black woman, has a handsome husband and children who are rooting for her to perfect her moves. Both Maxine (Dodie Domino), a down-to-earth veteran of the garment business, and Rose's chum Silvia (Sharon Maguire), who has five kids and an officially unemployed blue collar husband who does odd jobs for people who pay him under the table, are also a bit more buxom than is customary for dancers. Vera, though, (Celeste McClain) is in excellent shape -- her rich husband insists on it, even as he neglects her in favor of her teenage daughter.

The odd man out in the class is Geoffrey (Mark Leahy), a forty two year old widower who is taking lessons because they remind him of his late wife, who loved to dance. Mrs. Fraser (Peg Holzemer) pounds out piano accompaniment for the practice routines, and acts as both support and hindrance to Mavis, to whom she is a sort of substitute mother. All this, plus enough interaction and "issues" to fill a couple of months worth of soap opera, comes out because the students not only confide in each other, but each of them also has a solo moment in the spotlight to confide in the audience, too.

Though in some ways "Stepping Out" is a kind of low-rent "A Chorus Line", none of the amateur dancers dreams of a future on Broadway or in the Corps de Ballet. Individually, a woman may dance for nostalgia-- imagining herself in a Shirley Temple childhood, or a Ginger Rogers courtship. But as a group, they are all just into getting it together in the here-and-now. Their "progress" , improving their lives as they improve their ability to do a shuffle-ball-change, demonstrates the beneficent power of art-- even when practiced by the talentless.

The show ought to work. The Basic Theatre cast is obviously far more talented than the average adult ed dance class, and they and their audience are participating in what sociobiologists now believe is a basic bonding ritual of our species -- stomping and moving together in unison, to a rhythmic beat like that of bashed sticks and clapping paws. This activity creates such chemical euphoria in our primate brains, and so strong an attachment to the members of the band who share the experience, that our species will go out looking for a war just to keep on marching in step. Anyone who has ever counted "right and two and.." in the back row of a community theatre production of "Oklahoma" or "Fiddler On the Roof", or leaped up out of a theatre seat to give a standing "O" to a high school kick line, is convinced of the truth of the sociobiologists' theory. There's no thrill like "Stepping Out". So why, in spite of Veshecco's admirable instruction, and Merger's tough-and-tender pizzazz, and Pharms' charm, and the nice quiet moments of ensemble sharing the company puts on the stage, isn't the Basic's Theatre's production thrilling?

For one thing, author Harris hasn't provided the cast with very many good lines. This is to be expected from a play that is "slice of life" realism. What are the chances that the denizens of a church basement will think up lines like Neil Simon's, and deliver them with the timing of Lily Tomlin? But Harris invites the actors to try: Maguire's working class mom quips to the Radochia's upper class do-gooder, "We saw that play you recommended. We didn't even understand the intermission!"

Director MaryLee Vitale has encouraged her cast to belt out Harris's zingers like pros from the vaudeville circuit, and it drains the credibility right out of the show. If these are experienced performers, why are they making the audience sit through the most gawdawful attempts at choreography imaginable?

And why doesn't the class get better with practice? As the date of the big AIDS benefit draws near, and tickets are sold to family and friends, the chorus line is still starting on the wrong foot, turning left instead of right, and falling into each other. Yes, pre-performance nerves do take over at late rehearsals, and yes, adding props and costumes does add more opportunity to mess up. But by the time the teacher announces that they have "four more rehearsals", shouldn't at least the simpler steps be mastered and looking good? Is this teacher a scam artist, like the Music Man, so that only by a miracle will the audience be spared a climax of group humiliation?

The script has been updated and references to Boston thrown in, which is all to the good. But some of the company's other choices are more questionable. First, the Basic Theatre lacks a wooden dance floor in their Boston Baked space, so they've changed the classes from tap to jazz. Too bad -- tap's basic satisfaction, the sound of metal-shod feet being used as percussion instruments, sets off that magic bonding brain chemistry. Also, with taps on their shoes, the performers could have gotten plenty of comic mileage from a fairly subtle ineptitude, and not have resorted to improbable pratfalls and mugging.

Also, the production is trying to make do without live accompaniment. Peg Hozemer as the hapless Mrs. Fraser sits at the upstage piano and pretends to play, while a taped approximation of music is faded in and out, as quietly as possible . It's easy to see why the company would cast Hozemer -- she has a real command of the kind of grounded characterization that turns Harris' script from a college of stereotypes into living comedy. Whether she is complaining or mothering or just glancing up from under one of the dozen silly hats she wears, the actress is terrific. But the character's function is to play the piano. Without Mrs. Fraser's banging away to support or confuse them, the dancers have nowhere to go, and the result is scenes that are flat and static.

There are other, minor, problems with costumes and props and blocking, but none of them would matter if in the rehearsal scenes something HAPPENED-- if ordinary people were changing and growing, step by choreographed step.