Despite the fact that the obscure British play Stepping Out is more than two decades old, it continues to brand itself as a "new" comedy. For most of us, that label is apt. Stepping Out is new simply because we've not seen it. The original 1987 Broadway version directed by Tommy Tune closed prematurely after a short run. The 1991 film adaptation starring Liza Minnelli fell through the cracks. So how refreshing to finally catch up with a production at the Webster University Conservatory of Theatre Arts. And how surprising to discover that the misbegotten Stepping Out is a seductive pleasure.
It's easy to see how, in the wrong hands, this feel-good tale by Richard Harris (not the actor) about seven middle-aged women and one lonely man who find brief respite every week at their London tap-dancing class might fall flat. Stepping Out is yet another entry in that "let's put on a show" genre that's draftier than Mickey and Judy's barn. Yet despite the play's limited ambitions, this polished Conservatory staging smoothly delivers two and one-half hours of nonstop pleasure.
The plot, which is predictable as pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, finally kicks in after the class is invited to dance (for the first time publicly) at a charity benefit. Prior to that performance, almost every character is confronted by a melodramatic challenge. A nurse (Audrey Johnson) must deal with the death of one of her patients; the painfully introspective Andy (Caitlin Mickey) must overcome her own lack of self-esteem. Mavis (Shayla Spradley), who runs the school and still harbors memories of her own stalled career, will find herself at odds with her students.
But comedy is ever present. The anal Vera (Liz Ali) refuses to go drinking with the other girls after class, explaining, "It may be February outside, but it's always August under your armpits." Vera will soon reveal her own disappointments. Add to the amusing mix a squeaky-voiced optimist (Galen Crawley), a sexpot (Jamie Lynn Concepcion), an aging sexpot whose goal in life is to defy gravity (Jessica J. Brown), the self-assured Maxine (Abby E. Haug), the timid male student (the very lucky Daniel Ford) and, at the piano, a dour, Cassandra-like accompanist (Jessica Shoemaker). These performances excel both individually and as an ensemble.
Yet because this is a student production, everyone onstage is probably twenty years too young for their roles. That's when the theater's suspension of disbelief kicks in, and smoothly so. (Or you can look at it like this: Precisely because these women are all younger than their characters, the show is very easy on the eyes.)
The technical elements are superb. The lighting design by Victor Zeiser is flashy when flash is needed but is also true to the characters. One fade-out on the shy Andy, who sits isolated at the piano, is actually poignant. Even before the actors open their mouths, the deftly witty costumes by Aryna Petrashenko tell us much of what we need to know about each woman. Petrashenko is an actor's best friend. Director Lara Teeter, who also choreographed the creative tap routines (he spoofs Mel Brooks through the contorted prism of Bob Fosse, and when's the last time you saw that?), imposes a level of professionalism on university theater for which we all — actors and audience alike — are the beneficiaries. St. Louis theatergoers are blessed by an abundance of good college theater. But since arriving here last year, Broadway veteran Teeter continues to raise the bar.
After the brassy Maxine attends a play beyond her reach, she carps, "We didn't even understand the intermission." No such problem here. Stepping Out is not outraged by the plight of the world; it doesn't aspire to arouse you to action (other than to take up tap-dancing). It makes no apology for being unabashedly entertaining. But in pursuing that goal, Stepping Out excels beyond our expectations.