Step Afrika!’s ‘Magical Musical Holiday Step Show’ is a winter wonderland of joy

The internationally renowned percussive dance company has a gift for making the whole family happy.

Now in its eighth year, Step Afrika!’s Magical Musical Holiday Step Show has established itself as the season’s most joyful and lovable family festivity in DC. Exuberant music, adorable humor, and astounding dance combine to tickle kids and thrill adults. The performances are precise. The production under Mfoniso Akpan’s direction is impeccable. The merriment and excitement are nonstop.

And this year, demand was so great the run sold out online before it began.

Parents and little ones take their seats in the Spenger black box on four sides of a playing area that looks like a blue ice rink with big snowflakes fallen upon it and blue and white streamers draped above. On a high platform, Jeeda Bamngton as DJ Nutcracker, dressed like a drum major bear, is dancing to the seasonal tunes he spins. All around are lit trees, and on stage are ten drums.

The “Pa Drum Pa Pum Pum” scene in Step Afrika!’s ‘Magical Musical Holiday Step Show.” Photo by Edward C. Jones.

Yes, there will be percussion. Drumming and stepping and clapping and snapping and stomping and pounding. Because percussion is not only Step Afrika!’s signature sound; it is also the beating heart and driving lifeforce of this locally grown, internationally renowned dance company now celebrating its 25th year.

There’s something about hearing “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” over the gleeful laughter of children who are making noise with their hand-colored clackers that for a moment could make a grownup re-believe. It’s that kind of magical winter night.

The first choreographed number, “Nine Steppers Stepping,” features the women in sparkly black sheaths and the men in sharp bowties and black vests—and they kick off the show by knocking it out of the park. Yup, they’ve got a showstopper right at the top.

Matthew Evans in Step Afrika!’s ‘Magical Musical Holiday Step Show.” Photo by Edward C. Jones.

Our host for the evening, wearing a bright red blazer, is Matthew Evans, who wins over the audience with his charismatic charm and consummate timing. He also clowns around with one of several endearing stuffed animal characters in the show, a polar bear named Polo, at which the kids giggle with delight.

In “Pa Drum Pa Pum Pum,” the aforementioned drums get played stunningly and thunderingly. There are supremely inventive show-off solos. At one point the lights dim and the dancers rattle the rafters beating with drumsticks that light up spectacularly in the dark.

After a comic interlude with a green Grinch character, “The March of the Nutcrackers” brings out dancers dressed in red and white like wooden toy soldiers, stepping and marching in formation while thumping their hands against their bodies.

The fairies in “The Arctic Step Challenge” scene in Step Afrika!’s ‘Magical Musical Holiday Step Show.” Photo by Edward C. Jones.

“The Arctic Step Challenge” is a holiday version of a Step Afrika! standard, a dance-off between women (dressed as fairies with sparkly hats) and men (dressed as elves with sparkly shades). One team dances, the other team dances, the referee (now a blue-suited Evans) has the audience vote for its favorite by making all manner of noise; then after a moment’s suspense during which the referee consults Popper the Penguin, he calls the match for the women or for the men.

Response from adults in the audience during this number is voluble. “Okay!” “Alright now!” “Sounding good!” “Oh, yeah!” There’s a fun game at play here and everyone wants in.

Typically the women win a round then the men win a round then a brotherly/sisterly truce/tie is declared in the name of good sportsmanship. Besides conveying a genuine spirit of gender unity, the actual dance moves—astonishing feats of dexterity, strength, agility—demonstrate vividly how equally among the cast members their amazing athleticism and choreographic grace are shared.

The elves in “The Arctic Step Challenge” scene in Step Afrika!’s ‘Magical Musical Holiday Step Show.” Photo by Edward C. Jones.

Next, kids with their grownups are invited onstage for a dance party called “DJ Nutcracker’s Yuletide Step Workshop.” Just as it sounds, this is a chance to learn a dance step by step, in this case The Nutcracker Slide, which features fluttery fingers to “catch flurries from the sky” and knee dips to “dance down the chimney.” The night I saw the show half the house was on the ice and it was hilarious.

MC Evans sings the sentimental “Silver Bells” as dancers perform a lovely number dressed all in white. Emotional closure seems on the way in a finale called “Home for the Holidays,” during which all the dancers reappear with some dressed in costumes from each previous scene. A wireframe Christmas tree is set up; dancers deck it with ornaments; kids come onstage to help. And a mini-orchestra of percussion instruments—tambourines, woodblocks, rattles—rings in the spirit of Christmas as well as any bells.

Step Afrika! knows something important about making live theater happen to people in a way that makes them happy. It’s a joie de vivre that’s visceral. It’s an elation that’s infectious. It’s a virtuousity that awes. It’s an experience that defies explanation unless you’ve been to a Step Afrika! show and felt it.

Here’s a tip: Don’t get left out of a sellout next year. Get your tickets early.

Running Time: About 70 minutes, with no intermission.

Step Afrika!’s Magical Musical Holiday Step Show plays through December 22, 2019, at  Step Afrika! performing at The Paul Sprenger TheatreAtlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C.

The run is sold out. To find out if there are cancelations, call the Atlas Box Office at 202-399-7993 ext. 2. 

Note: Step Afrika! invites grownups who bring children to the crafts table in the Atlas lobby 30 minutes before showtime so they can create and decorate musical instruments such as clappers, shakers, and drums to be played during the show.

CAST
Jeeda Barrington, Deatrice Clark, Matthew Evans, Emerald Holman, Conrad Kelly, Misha Michel, Vincent Montgomery, Ronnique Murray, Dustin Praylow, AJah Smith, Valencia Springer, Jordan Spry, NickStewart, Pelham Warner, Robert Warnsley, Ta’Quez Whitted

CREATIVE TEAM
Director: Mfoniso Akpan; Production Manager: Simone Baskerville; Assistant Production Manager: Kyle M. Dill; Stage Manager: Kaycee Tucker; Assistant Stage Managers: Autumn Mitchell & Aitana Garrison; Sound Designer: Chris Lane; Sound Engineer: April Sturdivant; Lighting Designer: Marianne Meadows; Costume Designer: Paris Franceses; Lighting Board Operator: Kiman Mickens; Scenic Painter: Kelly Rowan; Production Assistant: Joe Murchinson; DJ Nutcracker: Jeeda Bamngton

RELATED:
“Step Afrika!’s Magical Musical Holiday Step Show (2016).” Review by John Stoltenberg.

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is currently interim editor in chief of DC Metro Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.

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