SU Drama’s ‘Stepping Out’ is in-step with dance, out-of-step with drama
Blame Richard Harris, whose humorous play about amateur tap dancers suffers from a script with two left feet
There’s no shortage of spectacle in Stepping Out, Richard Harris’s 1984 comedy about amateur dancers looking to overcome their inhibitions by learning to tap dance at a shabby church hall in North London. The rousing dance sequence at the end of this Syracuse University Drama production will have you clapping and cheering.
The real story, however, transcends the dancing: It’s about the interactions and relationships of the characters. And that’s where Stepping Out falls short. With 10 characters and lots of dancing, there’s precious little time for character development. The present production does its best with the script, offering a pleasant visual experience full of spectacle and style — though little substance.
The most enjoyable moments of the production are the ones played for broad comedy and easy laughs. During the dance classes, for example, characters often bang into one-another, drop props, turn the wrong way, and generally dance in a comically inept manner.
Some of the student-actors in the troupe have a strong gift for this type of slapstick humor. Georgina Morillo’s Rose is constantly moving the wrong way in the dance lines. During one memorable moment she repeatedly gets her feet tangled up as she tries to turn around. This may seem only good for a quick laugh, but Morillo manages to execute it hilariously and extend the humor. Likewise, Dorothy (played with over the top energy by Amanda Rojas) is always far too extravagant in her dance moves. Rojas keeps the laughs going as she repeatedly runs into doors.
Beyond the comedy of the dance sequence slapstick, Kierstan Kozbial-Wu and Nicole Moreno’s overly flamboyant and downright silly costumes draw laughs galore. Theses make the actors look that much more ridiculous as they crash into each other and fumble their way through the varied dance sequences. I especially enjoyed the character of Sylvia, portrayed fearlessly by Jesse Roth, who is often seen uncomfortably adjusting her (unflattering) cut off t-shirts and fluorescent spandex as she dances awkwardly for what seems like painful stretches.
Yet because of this spectacular hilarity, and the emphasis placed upon it, Stepping Out cannot sustain the softer moments when we are supposed to connect with the characters on a more personal level. There was precious little to connect each character with the audience. I enjoyed laughing with and at the comic exploits of the actors, but I found myself completely disinterested in them as people. Their discussions of failed marriages, financial difficulties and unwanted pregnancies simply felt discordant.
Much of the blame for this belongs sqarely on the playwright. Harris does not give the actors much believable dialogue to work with. He depends instead on periodic jokes and zingers. When the pace of the play slows and the audience is asked to see into the individual humanity of the dancers, we are incapable of doing so because the characters rarely seem real.
Among the few moments where the audience does get a glimpse into the characters, the best of these comes when the actors are preparing for class while staring into mirrors. Instead of actual mirrors, Set Designer Scott Holdredge uses the front of the stage as if it were a mirrored wall of a dance studio. When the actors gazing in the mirror they are actually staring out at the audience, giving us the opportunity to observe their subtle expressions and body language during their unguarded moments.
Once the actors are called upon to converse with each other about significant details in their lives, however, the play quickly falters. Not only is the dialogue forced, but the audience must also struggle with the actors’ faux British accents. As the play takes place in London, all the actors affect a British accent. Accent work is a very difficult skill: It takes quite a while to develop one that sounds natural. The actors struggled with this.
Christy Soeder’s choreography in this production is layered to faithfully represent the varying levels of dancing skills on the part of the characters as they progress. The dancers here never appear too polished — their moves and skills are made to look believable for a community dance troupe that had been dancing for a little over a year. Indeed, the dancing here is exciting, exuberant and provides a constant visual experience.
Since the characters are preparing for their big performance at a gala charity event, dance teacher Mavis (Madie Polyak) is forced to continuously revise their routine to play to the strengths of the novice dancers. I found myself often wishing that Director Timothy Davis-Reed had followed her example. Why not set the play in New York, Chicago, or LA and do away with the accent? That way the audience would have less of a difficult time suspending belief.
The final dance routine could have functioned as much more than a mere spectacle. When meek and mild-mannered insurance salesman Geoffrey (Tim Simon) jokingly flexes for the audience, and the shy and vulnerable Andy (Lindsey Maria Elizabeth Newton) confidently tosses her long hair, the audience should be applauding the transformation these characters had to undergo— and the role the dancing and human interactions had played in this development. Unfortunately, the scene cannot convey this weight because the play never gives us an appreciation for characters and their individual struggles.
Stepping Out entertains its audience through humor and dance, but ultimately cannot get beneath the surface to allow the audience to see these characters as complex, three-dimensional human beings. Much like leftover Halloween candy that is still floating around, this SU Drama production pleases, but fails to satisfy.
What: Stepping Out, by Richard Harris
Who: Syracuse Drama Department
Where: Storch Theater/SU Drama Theater Complex, 820 E. Genesee Street, Syracuse
Performance reviewed: Nov. 15
Remaining performances: Plays through Nov. 22
Length: About 2 hours and 15 minutes, including 15-minute intermission
Tickets: $19 general admission ($17 seniors 65+ and full-time students)
Call: 315-443-3275 or vpa.syr.edu/drama
Family guide: Adult humor