Circus On Tap!



Ringling Brothers may have live animals--minus the elephants--but they have nothing on “Carlucci’s Marvelous Exotic Extraordinary Big Top Universe of Renown,” otherwise known as Chicago Tap Theatre, for thrills and chills, and plenty of laughs.

“TightWire” (March 20-29 at Stage 773) is the innovative tap company’s latest venture outside the box of tap dance as we know it, an original, full-length circus drama in tap shoes, written by Marc Kelly Smith, (creator of Poetry Slam), with original music by CTT music director Kurt Schweitz, and choreography by CTT artistic director, Mark Yonally. 

“TightWire” has many delights in store for audiences of all ages. This is more than a good excuse for superb tap dancing, imaginative storytelling, and marvelous live music; it’s a circus! And it’s theatre, which is one of CTT’s unique contributions to the art of tap.

Yonally, who plays the winsome clown Gioconi in the 1930’s era traveling Italian circus, got the idea for “TightWire” from a tap duet he had choreographed the previous year. He and Smith already had a history of fruitful collaboration, through Poetry Slam and on previous CTT tap dance dramas, and set to work developing a story line that would provide rich opportunities for choreography. 

Five different scripts later, “TightWire,” emerged as a behind-the-scenes drama with all the intrigue of jealous sisters and a mysterious vagabond clown, Mr. Wilson (Rich Ashworth), whose shrouded past threatens to catch up with him. 

 The circus environment was a natural for Yonally’s tap dance storytelling. “People know that world,” he said after a recent rehearsal, still sporting a shiny red clown nose that dared anyone looking at him to keep a straight face. 

Using archetypal characters we all recognize--the lion tamer, escape artist, snake charmer, acrobats, tightrope walkers and clowns--gave the creative team a short-cut to the heavy-lifting function that a spoken script often serves. One of the hallmarks of Yonally’s pioneering “Tap Opera” format employs totally physical dramatic action, with characters in “dialogue” through the language of their feet instead of spoken words. The blustery Ringmaster Carlucci, played to Casting Central perfection by Smith, is the only speaking character.  The show is cleverly structured to allow him to function as both an integral character and storyteller, with stage action divided between back-stage scenes and the “on-stage” circus show-within-a-show.

“TightWire” is CTT’s most ambitious project to date, incorporating more elaborate visual spectacle, with set designer Jimmy Jagos’ circus arena stage-within-a-stage and projections by John Medina. Yonanlly says the circus setting is “perfect for the heightened drama found in Marc’s script which is dark, funny and sad, all at once.” Schweitz’s score, performed live, “captures a certain demented feel that this circus atmosphere inspires.” Emma Cullimore’s period circus costumes, ingeniously reversible for swift changes between the scenes that take place backstage and the circus show, add another layer of color and texture to the stage picture. 

“TightWire” is part of Chicago Tap Theatre’s annual three-show season, which includes its winter holiday offering, “Tidings of Tap,” and this year’s new “Circo Tap,” coming up in April to coincide with Chicago Dance Month and the Chicago Rhythm Fest. Yonally promises audiences a few “Easter Eggs” with continuing characters from “TightWire” and  some plot resolution that impacts “TightWire’s” heightened action.

In addition to its Chicago seasons, CTT tours nationally and internationally, with performances and master classes, and conducts an ongoing outreach program, “Feel The Rhythm,” in partnership with Chicago public schools, that brings tap education to deaf and hard of hearing children.

For performance details and tickets, go to, and click on “Upcoming Events.”