Review: Changes (Chicago Tap Theatre)


It’s bizarre. It’s fun. It’s tap-opera!


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Chicago Tap Theatre presents
Choreographed by Mark Yonally
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through March 20  |  tickets: $18-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

I’m not sure if there is a huge audience out there for “tap opera,” it’s an odd idea and it sometimes the ideas behind it conflict with each other. Chicago Tap Theatre claims to have pioneered/invented/discovered the art form, so each show, they seem to say is an experiment. To be honest, I never really thought of tap dance as a storytelling medium—it feels far better suited for the Lawrence Welk Show. But the talented dancers tapping their hearts out with CTT proved me wrong when I saw their Changes. It’s a non-verbal, all tap “opera” about alien genocide, set to the music of David Bowie. Yes, it is as awesome as it sounds.

Changes - Chicago Tap Theatre 04Changes works far better than it should. A race of happy aliens is betrayed by one of their own to a race of angry, power hungry aliens. Major Tom, Bowie’s astronaut muse, rockets to the same planet, meets the afflicted inhabitants, and works on setting things straight. It’s safe to say it’s a pretty simple narrative, and one safe for children. But the innovative tap dancing adds layer and character—these folks are acting through their feet. And CTT chose a good mix of Bowie, including “Fame,” “The Man Who Sold the World” and “Starman.” The zonked-out lyrics and spacey melodies gel with the story being told. The songs actually construct and inform the story as much as the dancing. For the most part, everything fits together decently. Founders of the style, Chicago Tap knows what they’re doing.

There are several leaks in CTT’s ship. None completely derail the production, but I wouldn’t call Changes the epitome of “tap opera.” But it sure is a great experiment.

Mark Yonally’s choreography matches up with the music well most of the time, but there are several moments where the thunderous tapping overpowers Bowie’s more subtle tunes. Maybe I’m biased, but I see tap as a happy enterprise. Yonally and the dancers stretch to find dramatic weight in their tapping, and some more serious moments don’t fly. However, CTT is able to make tap far more expressive than I thought possible. Again, they’re still discovering the form.

Another problem with the show is that dancers give up their characters whenever the stepping stops. When a song fades out, they devolve into amateurish pantomimes, usually involving a lot of pointing and smiling. I know I shouldn’t expect Steppenwolf-quality acting from a show about aliens and David Bowie. But the singers don’t stop acting after their arias in real operas, why should tap opera be any different? Call me nitpicky, but having some consistency would make a big difference.

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Still, Changes is two tons of fun. It’s flashy, accessible, and short. Yet, there is some serious talent at Stage 773. Richard Ashworth’s Major Tom, especially, has some serious moves. His jerky, rolling spacewalk to “Space Oddity” is one of the best moments of the show. The simple yet effective set contains a few surprises, too.

One reason to go to Changes is just so you can say you witnessed a tap opera. I don’t know if it is the future of tap or opera. It may not be a sustainable genre, but CTT sure tries their hardest to put it out there. There’s something valiant about that. These people have a story to tell and a fascinating way to tell it—one that doesn’t rely on heavily produced projections. Instead, they use their bodies and their feet. Then there’s Bowie, who’s weird enough to glue everything together. It’s so bizarre, which is maybe why it works so well.

Rating: ★★★

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CTT Dancers: Christina Merrill, Jenna Deidel, Jennifer Pfaff, Kendra Jorstad, Kirsten Williams, Laura Chiuve, Molly Stoltz, Phil Brooks, Richard Ashworth, Stacy Milam