Fun and “entertaining” tap play takes to the stage in Toronto
Stepping Out, Richard Harris’ 1984 play currently running at the Alumnae Theatre, is what I’d call a “hangout” play. It’s low-stakes, with only mild conflict and very little resolution. Its charm, much like a sitcom, lies in spending time with a group of people over the course of a year or so, told in vignettes from a slowly-progressing amateur tap class attempting to work towards an actual performance. This means the play lives or dies based on how invested you are in the characters and their relationships, and the snappiness of the dialogue. The script’s a bit hoary, but overall it’s fun to step in and hang out for a while.
The play is set in a North London church hall, presided over by former dancer Mavis (Jessica Westermann) who has settled for teaching tap classes, and her tyrannically uptight Scottish accompanist Mrs. Fraser (Jeanette Dagger). Nosy, intrusive and upper-class Vera (Alyssa Quart Cartlidge) is the newest member of the class, which includes frustrated stepmother and shop owner Maxine (Lisa Kovack); fragile, enthusiastic Dorothy (Kay Randewich, looking as if she’s about to break any minute); reserved social activist Andy (Rebecca Grenier); Rose (Linette Doherty), who wears her Trinidadian heritage and enormous cross proudly; nurse Lynne (Mish Tam); gum-chewing, lower class Sylvia (Felicia Simone); and the only man in the class, the harried widower Geoffrey (Scott Turner).
With so many feet on the floor, some characters are more developed than others; most are rooted in stereotypes but manage to rise above cliché through largely compassionate performances. I wish we’d gotten to know Lynn a bit better, for example; she has one big monologue because it’s her turn, but before and after that she’s largely faded out.
The cast’s accents are a little distracting in parts, but otherwise the actors acquit themselves well. Special mention should be made of Turner, doing his best stammering Hugh Grant as the shyly charming Geoffrey (his facial expressions as he tries to smile while dancing, and his ability to trail off halfway through a sentence, are priceless). There’s also Cartlidge, who manages to imbue the irritating Vera with a dose of insecurity and humanity, and Dagger’s piano-playing and icy, affronted dignity. Westermann is also a dynamite dancer.
There’s one casting choice that doesn’t make a lot of sense based on physical descriptions in the dialogue, but the performer is strong, so one can simply suspend disbelief.
As for the script, the gentle humour works better than some conflicts, particularly an odd burst of racism or a subplot involving possible domestic violence. These don’t build or land as well as they could, perhaps calling for some additional body language or subtext to go with the more abrupt expository text. Harris’ work towards addressing class conflicts succeeds more clearly, and it is admirable that a play designed to be a light comedy covers these subjects at all, though there’s a lot to process.
The 80s costumes (Bee Brownstone) are also very entertaining, particularly in a silver jumpsuit number that had my costume designer guest beside herself with admiration.
Overall, this show revolves around dancing, and the dancing — both the mostly comedic variety and the much more polished number — is very entertaining. It takes a great deal of talent to dance both well and poorly, and that specific type of poorly that is funny, and well-timed in how badly timed it is. On this level, the performers succeed admirably, particularly in Felicia Simone’s ability to look like her feet belong on a slightly different planet. In between and during scenes, there are a few transitions that could work more smoothly with less banging about, but the nice thing about a show like this is that any mishap merely adds to the humour.
In the end, it strongly recalls the musical A Chorus Line: there are a number of threads that never get resolved, except for presumably offstage between the final two scenes and a dance number. We’re left wanting a bit more, because we don’t quite know how we got there. To me, though, what this means is that we’d have just liked to hang out for a bit longer.
- Stepping Out plays at the Alumnae Theatre until February 6. Performances are Wed-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm.
- Tickets cost $20, with two-for-one Wednesdays and PWYC Sunday, and can be purchased online or by leaving a message at 416-364-4170 (press 1).
Photo of the cast by Bruce Peters