Hit comedy `Stepping Out' arrives from Britain

Stepping Out Play by Richard Harris. Directed by Tommy Tune.

In contrast to the seasoned hopefuls of ``A Chorus Line,'' the amateur hoofers of ``Stepping Out'' don't desperately ``need that job.'' The aims of the mixed ensemble in the new Richard Harris comedy at the John Golden Theatre are recreational and perhaps therapeutic. Mr. Harris's would-be tappers assemble once a week at a North London church hall to learn the mysteries of time steps and other, more complicated routines. The Broadway version of the engagingly sentimental British hit traces their terpsichorean progress from awkward squad to disciplined ensemble.

In the fashion of plays reflecting society's mix, ``Stepping Out'' mingles classes and races. A leisurely first act introduces the Londoners whom teacher-coach Mavis (Pamela Sousa) hopes to whip into shape. The cross-sectional sampling ranges from blonde, gum-chewing Sylvia (Sheryl Sciro) to hoity-toity busybody and tidier-upper Vera (Meagen Fay). There are also painfully introverted Andy (Janet Eilber), champion of nuclear disarmament and other causes; sassy Maxine (Carole Shelley), whose flea-market costume deals don't always produce desired results; nurse Lynne (Cherry Jones), who bites her fingernails and worries about her elderly patients; Dorothy (Marcell Rosenblatt), the awkwardest member of the troupe; and Rose (Carol Woods), the ample black matron who lends color and good cheer to the proceedings.

As the sole male of the class, self-effacing Geoffrey (Don Amendolia) quietly holds his own while posing no threat to the distaff members of the group. The tart-tongued accompanist, Mrs. Fraser (Victoria Boothby), keeps strict tempo through a repertoire of toe-tapping tunes from the good old days of pop music.

With its observations and revelations, passing emotional squalls and momentary restiveness in the ranks, ``Stepping Out'' stakes its claim as modest comedy about recognizable representatives of the human condition. Each of the characters - including the normally composed Mavis - has some inner secret waiting to be sprung. Harris is an equal opportunity playwright in a conventional tradition.

With Tommy Tune directing and Marge Champion as choreographer associate, the cast responds admirably to the double challenge of the material. As the comedy gathers momentum and the amateur dancers acquire facility, the audience becomes a rooting section for their debut in an amateur benefit for Save the Children. With their second annual appearance - by popular demand - Mavis's novices are well and truly putting their best feet forward.

David Jenkins has designed the kind of drab church hall for which humanity is left to supply the cheer and color. The production has been lighted by Beverly Emmons and costumed by Neil Spisak. Peter Howard supervised and arranged the medley of nice old tunes that make up the musical accompaniment. If any one song captures the good-natured mood of ``Stepping Out,'' it might well be ``Happy Feet,'' by Milton Ager and Jack Yellen.

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