Tuesday, May 1, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "Stepping Out" at the Welk

The Welk Theatre Looses Its Footing with Lithe Yet Lackluster “Stepping Out”

By Donnie Matsuda

The Cast of "Stepping Out."  Photo courtesy of the Welk.

In 1974, Michael Bennett conducted a series of taped workshop sessions with a handful of Broadway dancers as they opened up about their personal lives, their fears and hopes for the future, and their passion for dance.  What emerged was the blockbuster Broadway musical A Chorus Line, which was an unprecedented hit at the time, receiving 12 Tony Award nominations in addition to the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  It went on to become one of the longest-running productions in Broadway history and has become nearly synonymous with the word “dance” in America.

Ten years later, British television writer Richard Harris visited his wife’s modern dance class in a dingy North London church basement and happened upon a beginning tap dance class across the hall.  There, he saw a gaggle of goosy middle aged gals having fun and indulging their delusional dreams of one day being decent dancers.  What emerged was the West End play Stepping Out, which ran for three years in London (from 1984-1987) before transferring to Broadway for a short-lived three-month engagement.  It has since fallen into obscurity as a play and is rarely (if ever) produced.  However, the Welk Theatre in Escondido has decided to dust off this old-fashioned play and has done the very best they can to breathe some life into its broad and mostly boring cast of characters.  Their current revival is a valiant effort with some stalwart actors and they do an incredibly impressive job of trying to salvage this lackluster play from stepping out and stepping off into la-la land.  

Tracy Reynolds as Vera and Megan Carmitchel as Sylvia in the Welk's "Stepping Out."  Photo courtesy of the Welk.

Without a doubt, the major culprit here is the humdrum writing and shallow characterizations of Richard Harris’s script.  For most of the play’s two hours and fifteen minutes, we are stuck listening to the agonizingly asinine quibbles of the eight students – seven middle aged women and one old man – as they enroll in their first-ever tap dance class taught by oh-so-patient dance teacher Mavis (a lithe Brenna Fleeman).  There’s Vera (a perfect Tracy Reynolds) who is “meddlesome,” Sylvia (a vulgar, gum-chewing Megan Carmitchel) who is “not in dance shape,” Andy (an appropriately meek Deidra Mohr) who is “shy,” and Dorothy (an anxious Jenny Powell) who is “uncoordinated.”  The rest of the cast is less clearly characterized and includes laid back Geoffrey (Steve Owsley), native Trinidadian Rose (Crystal Burden with a credible West Indies accent), good-natured Lynne (Lauren King), confident Maxine (April Henry), and crotchety piano player Mrs. Frazer (Susan Boland).

As the play captures the idle chitchat of these ladies as they assemble for each beginning tap class, we are treated to nothing more than boring back-and-forth banter and a handful of unfunny, juvenile wisecracks.  The conversations might be more entertaining if they focused on each character’s hopes and fears for the future or if the characters involved were more fleshed out with more clearly defined – and far more compelling – character arcs.  Instead, we are left with silly chatter and intentionally bad tap dance sequences (in mock rehearsals) that end up being less entertaining and more embarrassing than anything else.   

Crystal Burden (front) as Rose surrounded by the cast of "Stepping Out."  Photo courtesy of the Welk.
The one redeeming element comes in the play’s final five minutes, as these middle aged klutzes are magically transformed into polished, high stepping hoofers as they perform the number they have been practicing in their dance class all year.  Yes, they are still amateur dancers, and yes, their number is as hokey and as kitschy as it gets, but it is here that they manage to engage and entertain the audience with their bright smiles and fun, cleanly executed tap steps (thanks to veteran tap master Jon Engstrom who both directs and choreographs this Welk production with style and flair).  

While Stepping Out lacks most of the amazing qualities that made A Chorus Line a mega-musical success, it does introduce its audience to the world of middle aged British women who have the courage to step out of their busy day-to-day lives – as mothers, wives, and working women - and indulge their fantasies of one day becoming tap stars. 

Whether it’s a premise worthy of stage time (or a full fledged revival at the Welk), well that’s another story entirely.

Things to know before you go: Stepping Out plays at the Welk Theatre through May 20th, 2012.  Running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.  Performances are Wednesdays at 1pm, Thursdays at 1pm and 8pm, Saturdays at 1pm and Sundays at 6:30pm.  For more information or to purchase tickets, call (888) 802-7469 or visit www.welktheatresandiego.com.

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