The rehearsal had overtones of a family reunion. After a three-week layoff, cast members of "My One and Only" gathered in sweats and tap shoes on the stage at the Harlequin Dinner Playhouse in Santa Ana, where the spirited musical will open Friday after three nights of previews.

The show has moved intact from its original home at Southampton, the San Clemente dinner theater acquired last summer by Al and Barbara Hampton, who also own the Harlequin. Monday was set aside for director Jeff Calhoun and the cast to buckle down to the tedious job of reworking the show to fit the Harlequin stage. It promised to be a long night; re-blocking the first act alone consumed five hours.

But no one was grumbling, least of all the two tap-dancing leads, Arthur Duncan and Joseph Jones, who are looking forward to hitting the boards again as the suave, experienced Mr. Magix and the eager, young hayseed pilot Billy Buck Chandler.

"My One and Only" is a dancers' show and their tapping skills get a nightly workout in the duet that has become a literal showstopper. Mr. Magix gives a sage lesson in romance to the naive Billy, who is bent on impressing the beautiful English Channel swimmer Edythe Herbert, played by Judy Clark. In the best Broadway tradition, Mr. Magix's advice is set to music, and the fancy footwork that follows becomes a contest of tap dancing skill, with Billy working to match every tap that comes from Mr. Magix's sure shoes.

They maintain that the number is just as much fun to perform as it is to watch.

"It's fun. Every night, there's just a little bit of change. That's what makes it live; that brings about the spontaneity," Jones said.

"We enjoy what we do out there, and we feed off the audience. . . . You can just feel the encouragement and the warmth that come from the audience," Duncan added. "Like Joseph mentioned, there's always something new or different every night, and we'll both pick up on it, and we'll look at one another and say, 'Oh my goodness, what next?' "

What's next--inevitably--is an encore, sometimes more than one. The two dancers exchange broad grins, and a glint of challenge passes from the older one to the younger one as the band picks up the tempo.

"My One and Only" is a champagne cocktail of a musical, written in 1983 by Timothy S. Mayer, with a boy-meets-girl story line fitted to familiar George and Ira Gershwin standards including " 'S Wonderful," "Strike Up the Band," "How Long Has This Been Going On?" and "Funny Face." Much of its magic comes from the imaginative choreography and staging by Tommy Tune, who starred with Twiggy in the original production, and Thommie Walsh. It is also that rarity in theater today--a musical that showcases tap dancing.

Duncan and Jones have their own individual tap styles, but they share an appreciation for rhythm tap, also known as close-to-the-floor tap. Rhythm tap involves more heel work and syncopation than the traditional musical theater tap that calls attention to the upper torso and the entire body line, Jones explained.

Duncan, who insists "middle-aged" is as specific as he cares to get when it comes to discussing age, has a few years' experience on Jones, 25. But "My One and Only" is Duncan's first stage musical, and he admits he was nervous. In a reversal of their stage roles, Jones helped ease Duncan into his first speaking role in a stage musical.

"I was petrified. . . . It scared me to death," Duncan recalled with a laugh. "I had a lot of help from Joseph and some of the other (cast) members who had been involved with musical comedy."

Although acting was new to him, performing was old hat. Duncan began dancing at 13, when he was drafted into a junior high school program against his will. Something clicked, and he began studying tapping in earnest. The movie musicals were a tremendous influence, he said. He'd sit through a show three or four times, dashing out to the lobby between screenings to try out the combinations he had just seen on screen.

Eventually, he was getting enough work as a dancer to set aside his plans to become a pharmacist, and he left school to pursue dancing full time. For 15 years, he was a featured regular on "The Lawrence Welk Show," until Welk retired in 1983. Along the way, he built a nightclub act that incorporated singing and comedy, and that act has taken him around the world, including a three years' stay in Switzerland.

Jones came to Orange County six years ago, obtaining dual bachelor's degrees from UC Irvine in fine arts and clinical psychology. Since college, he has appeared locally in musical theater productions such as "Side by Side by Sondheim" at Newport Theatre Arts Center and has studied rhythm tap at Orange Coast College. During the run of "My One and Only," his days are spent working for the City of Irvine Parks and Recreation Department, and evenings are spent at the theater. Any leftover time goes to teaching dance.

But when you're a dancer, diversity is a necessity, they both agreed. There is simply not enough work to go around today for hoofers, Duncan said. Jones echoed his sentiments, pointing out that the few shows that do feature tap often arrive in Los Angeles from New York with their New York casts in tow.

But Duncan sees a gradual turnaround, observing that more and more shows are incorporating tap into production numbers and an increasing number of casting calls are requiring a knowledge of tap. He views it as a healthy sign that tap is here to stay.

"I think that everything that goes around comes around, and maybe tap dancing is coming around again," he said.

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