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Stepping Out

Stepping Out(1991)

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teaser Stepping Out (1991)

"Your dreams are just a step away"
Tag line for Stepping Out

Liza Minnelli returned to the screen after a three-year absence to play Mavis Turner, a gifted singer and dancer teaching tap dancing while stranded in Buffalo, New York in Stepping Out (1991). Like her character in this musical drama, Minnelli was somewhat stranded, trying to rebuild her film career in a Hollywood that rarely bothered making the kinds of musical showcases her prodigious talents deserved. She had not had a big-screen hit since Arthur (1981), but though this feature did little to revive her box office allure, it provides a tantalizing reminder of what Hollywood -- and audiences -- are missing out on.

The film was adapted from a play by Richard Harris, a British writer best known for his hit series A Touch of Frost and The Last Detective. The idea came from his late wife, Hillary Crane, who had started her career as a dancer. Crane regularly took classes to brush up her dancing skills and after one suggested her husband should visit to pick up material for his work. Instead of looking in on her class, he had a tap class conducted in a local church, which gave him the idea for Stepping Out. After a three year run on London's West End, where it won the Evening Standard Comedy of the Year Award in 1984, the play ran for 73 performances on Broadway in 1987 and brought Carole Shelley a Tony Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical for playing the role that would go to Ellen Greene on screen. Tommy Tune directed the show and future Tony - and Emmy-winner Cherry Jones played Jane Krakowski's role.

For the film version of Stepping Out, Harris transplanted the action to Buffalo, NY, where location footage was shot (the film was made mostly in Toronto). He also made the project more dramatic than musical, focusing on the emotional problems of Mavis and her adult students rather than on their dance routines. Where the original was set entirely in the tap class, he opened up the action to show the characters' personal lives. With Minnelli signed to play Mavis, the piece was transformed from ensemble drama to star vehicle. In addition to singing "Mean to Me" with her boyfriend's rock band, Minnelli performs two solo routines choreographed by Danny Daniels, with whom she had worked on Best Foot Forward, her New York stage debut. John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote the title tune to give the film a big finale, with the tap class pulling together to perform at a charity show.

At the time, Minnelli's musical career was her main focus. After the failures of her previous two films, Rent-a-Cop (1987) and Arthur 2: On the Rocks (1988), she had largely abandoned film acting. But her concert career was still in high gear, with a profitable tour as part of Frank, Liza & Sammy: The Ultimate Event with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. (she had replaced an ailing Dean Martin). She had released Results, an album of electronic dance music, in 1989, which had led to hit singles in the U.S. that included "Losing My Mind" and "Love Pains." A year later, she was one of the first recipients of the Grammy Legend Awards.

Lewis Gilbert, who had scored hits with earlier stage adaptations such as Educating Rita (1983) and Shirley Valentine (1989), took on directing chores and cast his Educating Rita leading lady Julie Walters in a prominent role as a socially pretentious class member. Carol Woods was the only actor from the Broadway cast to repeat her role in the film. The rest of the cast of Stepping Out featured such noted stage performers as Ellen Greene, who had triumphed off-Broadway as Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors before starring in the 1986 film version, acclaimed mime Bill Irwin and Jane Krakowski, in her first major film role after scoring on stage in Grand Hotel: The Musical. Alongside Minnelli, the most prominent film name in the cast was Shelley Winters as the class's cantankerous accompanist. Rounding out the class were SCTV alum Andrea Martin and acclaimed Canadian actress Sheila McCarthy, star of the indie hit I've Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987).

Stepping Out was only given a limited release in the U.S., and received mixed reviews. Roger Ebert called it "an amateur night version of A Chorus Line" and expressed his frustration that the movie didn't have more Minnelli and less of her angst-ridden class. He also felt that by showing what was only talked about in the stage version, the piece lost much of its narrative thrust. The play continues to remain a popular revival, though it has been received more enthusiastically around the world than on Broadway. A 25th anniversary revival is still touring Great Britain.

Producer: John Dark, Lewis Gilbert
Director: Gilbert
Screenplay: Richard Harris
Based on his play
Cinematography: Alan Hume
Art Director: Alicia Keywan
Score: Peter Matz
Principal Cast: Liza Minnelli (Mavis Turner), Jane Krakowski (Lynne), Bill Irwin (Geoffrey), Ellen Greene (Maxine), Sheila McCarthy (Andy), Andrea Martin (Dorothy), Julie Walters (Vera), Carol Woods (Rose), Shelley Winters (Mrs. Fraser), Nora Dunn (Pam). C-106m.

by Frank Miller

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