ETA Creative Arts Foundation

Stepper’s Ball opens with a memory, as old Sammy, the proprietor of the Castle Dance Club, puts down his broom to play a mellow tune on the jukebox and dream-dance with his young bride of long ago. In this moment the universe of Phyllis Curtwright’s play is established, so that when Sammy’s reverie is broken by the arrival of the club’s habitues it comes as no surprise that the chief topic of conversation is the upcoming Fourth Annual Stepper’s Ball. The champions, the west-side Chi-Town Girls, will be challenged by a south-side sorority so new it hasn’t even got a name–but Francine, its self-proclaimed leader, has big plans that require bossing the other two members mercilessly. These consist of her pretty but socially inept sister Shenisa and her longtime chum Lindy, who has in Francine’s opinion been paying far too much attention of late to her fiance Lamar, recently returned from the war in Vietnam. When Shenisa begins to get romantic with DJ-wannabe Maceo, and Lamar is hired for a corporate-drone job under the new equal-opportunity program, leaving the neglected Lindy vulnerable to the predations of the suave Two-Tone, complications ensue. Finally, on the night of the ball, everyone must decide what is most important to him or her.

Initially developed in ETA’s Readers Theater program and the New Tuners workshop, Stepper’s Ball boasts sprightly repartee (during a friendly game of the dozens, one opponent scores with “Your mother is so tall, she tripped on State Street and hit her head on Stony Island Avenue”) and period references that drew chuckles of recognition from the opening-night audience (noting Two-Tone’s flashy clothes, Sammy says, “Why don’t you just buy stock in Smoky Joe’s?”). Curtwright’s original score evokes the mid-60s: Two-Tone’s silky “Consider Me” has a bossa nova tempo, Francine’s coyly sassy “Miss Personality” is backed by the Chi-Town Girls in vintage Marvelettes style, and the smoothly blended harmonies of “Stepper’s Delight” recall the Fifth Dimension. By contrast, a satirical hymn in praise of the white business world is written in a comically relentless lock-step patter, and the Chi-Towns’ challenge to their rivals, “How Do You Like Them Apples?” has all the swagger of a female Jets song. There’s even an act-two gossip-quartet number, just like in Webber’s Phantom (in turn cribbed from Bizet’s Carmen).

Director Kemati Janice Porter and choreographer Julian Swain have assembled a talented and exuberant cast who keep the action going and the interactions seamless: everyone stays in character even when another actor has focus. The lissome Anita M. Davis and the violin-voiced Kenny Davis are nicely matched as the troubled Lindy and Lamar (though the latter tends to swallow the lyrics), as are Artesia Lake and Kristen Irby as Shenisa and Maceo. Elaine Joyner as the ambitious Francine and Kenneth Fobbs as Two-Tone (who accepts his inevitable defeat with gentlemanly resignation) are two equally formidable tempters. As the deus ex machina Sammy, El Feigo anchors this microcosm with his gruff baritone and avuncular advice.

The technical team deftly re-creates the magic of a more innocent time–in musicals anyway. Dorian Sylvain’s serviceable set might spark a flash of recognition among audience members who saw ETA’s The American Boys last year, but Marguerite Scott’s costumes capture the period right down to the beads and sequins on Francine’s A-line dress–she rattles when she dances. Stepper’s Ball is a modest but delightful little summer musical.