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A dancing delight

Stepping Out is a heartwarming, spirit-lifting drama with comedy, music and dance that's just perfect for Liza Minnelli _ and nine other splendid actresses. Directed by the British veteran Lewis Gilbert from Richard Harris' (not the actor) adaptation of his own play, it is in the ingratiating theatrical tradition of such Gilbert winners as Shirley Valentine, Educating Rita and Alfie, all of which were plays.

Minnelli is Mavis, a one-time Broadway dancer who threw over a promising career for love. Six years have passed, and she and her man, a musician (Luke Reilly) whose big moment has long since passed, are struggling to make ends meet in upstate New York, where they have temporarily landed. Occasionally, they get a gig in a club _ she sings, he plays guitar _ and she has started giving tap-dance lessons in a former church. One day, the ever-so-condescending grande dame (Nora Dunn, deliciously hateful) of the local performing arts center requests that Mavis' students dance in a Save the Children benefit.

It's one of those events that takes on far greater importance than at first seems possible. It means that Mavis' highly varied group of seven women (Ellen Greene, Julie Walters, Robyn Stevan, Jane Krakowski, Sheila McCarthy, Andrea Martin and Carol Woods) and one man (Bill Irwin) will really have to pull together and work hard if they are not to make absolute fools of themselves.

Under Gilbert's skilled guidance Minnelli scales down her superstar charisma, losing herself in her role _ but, thankfully, there are logical moments when Minnelli gets to tear loose in dance as well as song. Shelley Winters, who gave one of her best performances in pursuit of Michael Caine in Alfie, does so again here as Mavis' amusingly thin-skinned but doughty piano player.

Despite such formidable presences as Minnelli and Winters, Stepping Out is a true ensemble piece. Even so, Walters, star of Gilbert's Educating Rita, stands out as a tactless, rich matron as does McCarthy, star of the wonderful I Heard the Mermaids Singing, as a woman struggling to assert herself against odds greater than we at first realize. Irwin is a shy charmer, but the other key men are so underwritten they should have existed only off-camera.

As is often the case with films adapted from plays, Stepping Out is not without its contrived moments, but they are too few and far between to spoil the show.

Stepping Out

Director: Lewis Gilbert

Cast: Liza Minnelli, Shelley Winters, Sheila McCarthy, Julie Walters

Screenplay: Richard Harris, based on his play

Rating: PG; adult situations

Running time: 108 minutes

Movies not reviewed by Times critics do not receive star ratings.