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REVIEW : 'Stepping Out' Stylish Tip of the Hat to Grit

April 29, 1993|RAY LOYND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As you listen to Fred Astaire singing "Puttin' On the Ritz" in the dance comedy "Stepping Out" at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, you are reminded of that famous story about the studio executive who sized up Astaire's chances for movie stardom with the immortal words, "Can't act--but can dance a little."

That perfectly describes the gaggle of largely middle-aged women--and one very shy man--who join an adult education tap dancing class in this audience-friendly play.

Basically, British playwright Richard Harris' text is an amateur dance version of the infinitely more famous "Chorus Line."

In "Stepping Out," the dancers' life stories dramatize personal insecurity and the desire for a human connection. This in turn leads to a rousing, curtain-dropping dance number, complete with top hat, cane and black tie, in which the class of clumsies shows that it has the right stuff.

Originally staged in London and then on Broadway, the show was first seen here at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1989. Why the Sierra Madre Playhouse chose to revive a show that many San Gabriel Valley theatergoers saw in a bigger production four years ago is not clear, except that it offers down-home material with a high quotient of patron-identity.

For that matter, the Sierra Madre Playhouse does nothing but revivals, most of them considerably older than "Stepping Out." The last show was "Dames at Sea" and upcoming this year are "Dinner at Eight," "California Suite" and suspense dramas from Ayn Rand and Agatha Christie.

The irrefutable fact about "Stepping Out" is that its dance sequences, deliberately chaotic at first, are the whole charm of the show. You find yourself barely enduring the alternating plot epiphanies about broken marriages and stunted lives until the moments when the intimidating cross-patch of a rehearsal pianist (Fern Collins-Moore) and the determined dance teacher (Fran McCreary) signal the tap-happy dancers to "hit it."

To the production's advantage, none of the actors are glamorous-looking. They also mirror, under Bob Hakman's direction and performer B.J. Ellersieck choreography, the reality of once-a-week workouts in a makeshift dance hall.

But the casting is only half-blessed. Some of the actors are either too tiresomely hyper (Josie Dapar), too one-dimensionally nosy-busybody (Sondra Knott) or too strenuously pained (Tamra Witten).

Others, however, are genuinely likable, affable struggling amateurs (Heidi Motzkus, Jinny Wilcott, Melanie Ewbank). Ernst Ellersieck is particularly effective as the only male character in a performance so nicely silent he almost blends into the woodwork--all the better for the moment he revs it up in a stylish tip of the hat to Astaire at the end of the show.

The costume changes (credited to "dresser" Susan Zehnder) are almost as much fun as watching the characters attempt to learn to tap, with the 10-member cast switching into a fresh, amusing wardrobe for each new class.

'STEPPING OUT'

Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday matinees, 2:30 p.m., May 2, 9 and 16. Special performance 8 p.m. May 27 to benefit All Saints AIDS Service Center. Ends May 29. $7.50-$8.50. (818) 355-4318. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

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