When Repertory Philippines announced early last month that they’ll be convening a stellar ensemble for their season ender, they weren’t kidding. When some of the cast members posted on their FB that the rehearsals were fun, however, challenging, they weren’t kidding either. Though Richard Harris’ STEPPING OUT THE MUSICAL can arguably be described as a tarnished version of A CHORUS LINE, in it are characters who are living in an imperfect world and who are trying – with all their might – to make everything perfect.
And that’s where the challenge comes in. To make something appear perfect is conceivably possible, but presenting a story of blemished, ordinary and humdrum characters in a world of demanded synchrony, is not a picnic.
It tells of the Friday nights in the lives of seven women and one man, attending a weekly tap dancing class. They meet in an old dance studio to practice what they want to do best. One day, when their tap teacher, Mavis, announces that they were asked to present a number for a charity event, the characters put on more than just their dancing shoes. As they tap their way to charity event, personalities collide and we get to know their lives, their insecurities and dreams.
Director Jaime del Mundo orchestrates this ensemble with undeniable glee. Here, he mostly dismisses the canny feel of a typical musical. In STEPPING OUT, he scatters the blocks with real movements, sometimes unfeigned, and raw for the stage. Del Mundo creates a skeletal world of dance that somewhat lacks the backdrop colour – but paints his characters so beautifully and sincerely that it makes the viewing experience so refreshing and unaffected. STEPPING OUT isn’t all about dance. The dance is just the moving motivation for the characters to meet once a week. What the material wants to focus on are its characters, however flawed and jaded, and del Mundo succeeds in presenting these wonderful imperfections.
This production showcases an exceptionally powerful ensemble. Shiela Francisco plays Mrs. Fraser, the tap school pianist who feels undervalued for her role in the class, thus retorting to being a know-it-all. Francisco’s Mrs. Fraser is extremely lovable and motherly. Despite her uninterested behavior in class, we see in her the motherly care for Mavis.
Sarah Facuri is Sylvia, the stout, energetic housewife who’s friends with Rose. Facuri is fun to watch, most especially when she taunts the older women in the group. Natalie Everette portrays Dorothy, a lonesome spinster who have devoted all her life to taking care of her mother. Here, Everette seems too small while in the group, but her big movements during the rehearsals are hilariously grabbing. Cara Barredo is Lynne, an ultra-sensitive young woman who’s a nurse during the day, and a wishful dancer every Friday night. Here, Barredo is at her best. Despite the small role, she clearly portrays a woman who have enough in her hands, but dreams for more. And did I mention that she taps so beautifully?
Topping the bill are some of its players. Bituin Escalante as Rose, the fleshy Haitian who doesn’t care about what other people think. Here, Escalante offers her talent, both in dancing and singing, with extreme gusto and character. Fresh from the successful run of 9 Work Theatrical’s 50 SHADES THE MUSICAL, she brings to the Repertory stage her accented characterization of a woman who brandishes her pride through dance and music (Don’t Ask Me).
Much can be said, too, on Angela Padilla’s Mavis Turner. As the tap instructor, Padilla depicts the hopeful and striving artist in each of us. But what I like most in Padilla are during her most silent scenes. Here, she displays sensitive authority on stage through her tranquil presence and vulnerable depiction of a woman who’s almost about to give up.
Seeing someone like EJ Villacorta on stage again is an absolute treat. See, Villacorta was last seen on the theater stage many years back in A CHORUS LINE. After being behind the spotlight for decades, Villacorta returns with avid fondness as the big-mouthed Maxine. Watching her on the 2016 stage is quite refreshing as she brings with her the a nostalgic performance for Maxine. Here, Villacorta showcases a depiction we rarely see on the contemporary stage.
Christine Flores is immensely affecting as Andy. As the lonely wife who finds refuge in dance and endorphine-driven activities, Flores portrays a relatively familiar character. We know someone like her, and as Flores painfully reflects Andy’s silent remose, we silently cry with her.
Raymund Concepcion, the only male performer in the ensemble, plays the newly widowed Geoffrey. What I particularly like about Concepcion is he sketches his character with a rather tarnished reading, making Geoffrey ultimately vulnerable and real. Like Padilla, he is best during his silences, but could also be dashingly attractive during the dance sequences.
But it is Ms. Joy Virata who, I think, deserves the greatest praise. As the painfully nosy, impassive matron Vera, Virata brings down the house, not with her big scenes, but with her subtle acts of nosiness and her surprisingly heartbreaking back story. When Vera in Act 2 finally opens up about her life (Loving Him), one begins to get reminded that there’s more than the surface. Virata’s Vera powerfully makes us bring this to mind.
In STEPPING OUT, we are faced with what literary critic and feminist Elaine Showalter describes as women talk. Here, we see how women speak amongst themselves and what they think of the opposing sex (What Do Men Think?). In most of the scenes, they reveal how women find themselves in the world of men, their husbands, partners and friends. As they speak, we learn about their insecurities, their hidden pains and ultimately, their marginalized space in society.
Above all these, Harris’ material presents an array of imperfect characters and with it are their tarnished dreams. Though a musical comedy, it doesn’t fail to offer something much deeper and reflecting. Each character offers an engaging backstory and a wonted connection. I, for one, was once a part of a class like Ms. Mavis’ and I know how it feels to escape, however momentary; however fleeting (One Night A Week). In this endorphine-filled world, we didn’t get harsh judgements and we give new skills a try. And that was enough to help me to gear up again and fight in the real world.
This musical makes one realize that our imperfections make us perfect for this world. Though Harris never gives his characters their own satisfying redemptions, his story resolves quite truthfully with a perfectly imperfect resolution. Like life, it ends with an uncommon, however, unlikely triumph, that we must still be thankful for.
Go see it for yourself, and learn. This production is something that’s quite hard to forget.
Photos by Mr Jaypee Maristaza and Mr. Boyet Guevarra
For more perfomance photos, click here to see Ms. Anne Jimenez‘ photo review of the show