After nearly a year and a half of Zoom dance class and virtual performances, Chicago Tap Theatre is trading in clap emojis for applause from a live audience in a return to the big stage with their new production, Tap Secret!, which will be performed in two shows at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts on July 10.
“We kind of felt like it’s been a tough enough couple of years for all of us, and what everybody deserves right now is cotton candy,” says Mark Yonally, CTT’s artistic director and choreographer of Tap Secret!. “There certainly is some subtext to this show, but taken on a surface level it’s just a joyful, funny kind of show.”
To maintain social distancing, only 350 tickets from this 1,000-seat theater will be available for purchase per show. While Tap Secret! will not be livestreamed, the company is planning to film a high-quality rendition of the show that will be released at a later date.
Founded by Yonally in 2002, Chicago Tap Theatre has set itself apart from other dance companies through its story shows: a play with an original story line conveyed through tap dance.
“We have done story shows that were kind of heavy before. We’ve done ones that were dealing with really tough subjects,” Yonally says. “We made a very conscious effort that this is not that.”
While a play that replaces dialogue with tap dance may seem unconventional, CTT dancer and rehearsal director Sterling Harris views tap dance as a very clear form of storytelling.
“Tap has a very innate ability for communication. When I’m watching tap, I can really tell what someone’s emotional consciousness is behind a certain step,” Harris says. “Even though we don’t have words, the rhythm of our feet can do a pretty good job of taking over.”
While tap dance is used as the primary storytelling medium in Tap Secret!, audiences can also look forward to a one-of-a-kind story line and original score from beloved Chicago artist and CTT’s music director, JC Brooks.
Many fans know Brooks as the lead singer in JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound, a soul and funk band that tours across the U.S. and internationally. But alongside his work with his band, Brooks carries a robust love for musical theater and performance.
“Theater’s been a constant thread through my life, even with the band,” Brooks says. “As far as trying to score a piece, I never imagined doing that 20 years ago when I was getting a degree. So that’s a little bit of a departure, but it’s also something that at this point feels inevitable because of my love for music and musical theater specifically.”
The director of Tap Secret!, Mike Weaver, also comes from a unique musical background. In addition to holding degrees in filmmaking and piano jazz performance, he is one of the most well-known show choir choreographers in the country and the coauthor (with Colleen Hart) of the book Sweat, Tears, and Jazz Hands: The Official History of Show Choir from Vaudeville to Glee.
Collectively, these artists hope to craft an original yet vibrant viewing experience for their live audience. From the very beginning, their creative process has relied upon collaboration as they bring together elements of tap dance, music, and storytelling.
“We took JC’s plot, and Mike turned it into a script. Then, I worked with Mike to play with some of the story details to make everything work and to play to some of the strengths of tap dancing to tell the story,” Yonally says.
Tap Secret!, which is set in the 90s, follows Paulie (played by Harris), a sound engineer who embarks on a journey to save the music industry with his love for rhythm. Paulie starts to become alarmed by the rise of over-manufactured pop music that is overshadowing “the beauty and intricacy of music rooted in polyrhythm,” Yonally says.
“He works in a lab where they’re testing out some new technology, but he sees that it is actually hypnotizing people and is conflicted about it and wants to do something,” Brooks explains. “He gets recruited by a group of rhythm spies to help defeat this new evil plot to enslave the world through pop music.”
Even more, the music conglomerate that Paulie works for is called “EmptyV.” Sound familiar?
From the very beginning, Brooks knew he wanted to set the story line in an easily identifiable time period. Ultimately, he landed on the 90s due to his own personal connection to that era.
“That was when I came of age, so it’s just the music that I gravitate towards,” he says. “I saw this clip of this MTV interview where David Bowie is asking why MTV doesn’t really play Black artists and that was the motivation for this war that was playing out in the original draft of the script.”
As he crafted the score for Tap Secret!, Brooks drew from familiar pop sounds from the 90s in addition to more intricate rhythms such as jazz and Afrobeat.
“I was trying to draw the dichotomy between this Max Martin style of overproduced pop and the polyrhythmic world,” Brooks says.
Along with Brooks’s compelling score and story line, audiences can look forward to enthralling choreography from Yonally and his dancers. Recently, some younger, fresh faces have joined the company’s ranks, but unfortunately the pandemic has limited their performance opportunities. Now, they can finally share their passion for tap dance with a live audience.
“We got some pretty heavy-hitting talent right now,” Yonally says. “So I think people are really going to enjoy the level and sophistication of the artistry and technical prowess that these dancers are capable of.”
In Tap Secret!, CTT’s company members aren’t just dancers, but musicians and storytellers. This unique expression of artistry is something that audiences should look forward to, Harris says.
“I think the show is very exciting. It’s a way to experience a story line that may be unique to you, and familiar at the same time,” Harris says. “It’s full of energy and it’s full of joy and it’s full of tap dance.” v