Chicago Tap Theatre’s “Changes” retro-fires its rockets back to the future of 1940’s outer space drama in a production that revives a past success and forges new creative ground. (June 30-July 16, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 PM, Sundays at 3 PM, Stage 773),
Upon hearing, “Ground contact to Major Tom!” most people in the audience at opening night would have recognized the lyric from David Bowie’s 1972 “Space Oddity.” Most would have appreciated the irony of artistic director Mark Yonally and music director Kurt Schweitz’s inventive adaptation of Bowie’s music to the wildly incongruous idiom of tap dance. The unlikely libretto of “Changes,” a science fiction soap opera that syncopates 1940’s outer space movie clichés with tap dance virtuosity, rallies to the familiar strains of “Let’s Dance,” “Life On Mars,” and “The Man Who Sold The World.”
The question becomes, should one not familiar with David Bowie be able to walk into a Bowie-inspired tap dance drama like “Changes” (although I would wager there is nothing “like” it in either this world or outer space), and truly appreciate the relationship of the music to the choreographic storytelling without prior familiarity with Bowie’s music? Might they be missing what would be obvious to the hip?
Or, should “Changes” stand on its own as a work of dance theatre, regardless of prior familiarity with the music, to be measured by the highest standards of storytelling, integration of music and dance, spatial design, movement invention, production values, and artistic expression as represented by currently recognized masterpieces?
While I can’t think of any model tap dance epics to date, other than Yonally’s outstanding CTT production of last year’s “Time Steps,” Twyla Tharp’s “Movin’ Out,” set to the pop music of Billy Joel, might serve as a worthwhile reference point in the world of dance. You didn’t have to know the music to get the story and become completely engrossed in the drama, and yet the music supported the storytelling. At times, Bowie’s driving beat enhances the drama of “Changes.” At other times, a snatch of lyric seems to drive story structure, but lyric audibility is spotty, perhaps deliberately so.
The storyline of “Changes” hints at silliness, with a minimal plot and plenty of tongue-in- cheek nods to campy acting. It’s meant to be fun, and sometimes even funny, which for the most part it truly is. How much more fun would it be for those not familiar with Bowie’s songs if they were able to hear and understand the recorded lyrics and their relationship to the action on stage?
This production of “Changes” is the third iteration of a show that was first produced in 2006, when CTT was just getting its tapping feet wet. I suspect that the retooled production we witnessed opening night has melded vestiges of the original with revisions that reflect the artistic evolution and maturity of today’s company.
Dustin L. Derry’s dazzling lighting and laser design created a starry outer space universe of high tech effects, but Emma Cullimore’s costuming of the chorus contrasted with puzzling drabness.
Yonally’s Altego was comically villainous, with exaggerated black shellac beard and menacing eyebrows, but the why and wherefore of conflict between the invading Altego and the angelic Alliange chorus was a bit murky, with several long, mostly unison group tap sequences that drowned out the lyrics, occasionally fought the music’s decisive downbeat and did little to convey their role in the architecture of the story.
All this is perhaps irrelevant when there is so much good tap dancing at hand, especially Kirsten Uttich’s stellar Major Tom, Isaac Stauffer’s superb story within a story in Act I, and the excellent Jennifer Pfaff Yonally, singled out as a kind of sacrificial virgin, her winsome tap solos characterizing a tentative willingness to please the lascivious Altego.
The drama of “Changes” really gelled with Mark Yonally’s spectacular Act II opening solo as Altego, and set the tone for a much richer level of danced storytelling with what CTT does best: using the tap idiom to convey character, relationship, intention, and above all the emotional engine of the story. This they did, to an exciting climax in which Utich as Major Tom rallies the downtrodden troops to overtake Altego and the Henchmen. Yonally combines compelling full-body choreography, major tap technique, and exciting oppositional spatial design to convey story, all in sync with the intensity of Bowie’s dramatic music, enhanced with Schweitz’s melodic arrangement for cello and violin, performed live by Anna Gillian and Molly Rife. At its strongest, “Changes” climactic confrontation between Uttich and Yonally transformed a classic tap dance convention of virtuoso one-offs into real high stakes drama.