Few things define Chicago Tap Theatre more than their story shows, tap operas that cleverly tell tales with the feet of this 18-year-old company’s members. So, it is only fitting that CTT’s first performances for live audiences be within this signature genre.
“Tap Secret!” is the latest such endeavor, performed twice on Saturday as part of the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts robust summer line-up of in the theatre and adjacent parking lot.
It was all hands on deck for the hour-long show, with an expanded cast of 14 made possible by bringing guest artists Chris Matthews, Sofia Hessevick, Jorie Goins and former CTT mainstay Kirsten Uttich into the fray with the usual suspects. Portable projector surfaces (by Graham Louthan) frame the dancers, giving context clues about locations for the show's 18 scenes—a subway car, a city street, a music studio or a vintage apartment, for example. “Tap Secret!” looks and sounds a bit like Chicago in the ‘90s—the most legible tip is a recognizable CTA “doors closing” announcement and views of Lake Street under the Green Line—but it could just as easily be somewhere else.
Behind the screens sits a four-person band, including CTT music director and “Tap Secret!” composer JC Brooks, who thankfully emerges to sing one of his songs as artistic director Mark Yonally, who plays an evil Discofied music exec, solos—more on the Disco part later. Brooks' charisma is infused in his music, but it's certainly nicer to get a peek of him here.
This is firmly the 1990s, but it’s not quite clear where we are in the decade. Yonally is a holdover from the Disco era. There are tape decks, but also flip phones. Nerdy ‘90s and pre-goth grunge co-exist through Jeff Hancock’s colorful costumes. Brooks’ music is similarly a smorgasbord of rhythms and styles, dipping toes in a variety of Latin and Afro-Caribbean beats as well as funk, jazz and pop. This keeps the fast-moving show rhythmically interesting—which is roughly the premise of “Tap Secret!”—though the sharp left turns musically exacerbate the rough cuts between scenes, which are separated by choppy blackouts, and leave us to wonder if or when we should clap.
The story itself is a bit muddy, and with no printed libretto, the plot is really anyone’s guess. One thing is clear: Sterling Harris, as the character Paulie, is the protagonist of “Tap Secret!” (not to mention a rising star in CTT and recently appointed rehearsal director). From what I could tell, Paulie aspires to a career in music, but his radical rhythms—get it? Paulie’s rhythms?!—don’t go over well with music tycoon Trax Tartan (Yonally), whose wealth and fame are wrapped up in Pop Princess (think Britney, circa 1998), played by Sara Anderson. Paulie convinces them all to give syncopation a chance.
On the way to happily ever after, Paulie is kidnapped by Bop (Molly Eder), Stomp (Goins) and Ruth (Molly Smith), who train him Rocky style, complete with headbands and swishy, shimmery exercise garb from the era. Why? Who cares?! While the Step Aerobics scene in “Love Taps” will forever be my favorite tap/fitness montage, Paulie’s tap burpees are a close second.
The other cast members are a bit more ambiguous, shifting roles to portray various characters who move the plot along—office grunts at the music studio, train passengers or Paulie’s mom, for example. Jennifer Pfaff Yonally is a DJ type figure, scratching records with her feet and, presumably, drawing more attention to Paulie’s rhythms.
With “Tap Secret!,” Chicago Tap Theatre opts for fluff and fun, choosing the path of least artistic resistance as the performing arts emerge from the pandemic’s rubble. Heck, cameos from puppets Robber and Bandit (created by puppeteer Sam Locke) give the whole thing a Sesame Street vibe.
But the nice thing about Sesame Street is that there are deeper themes if you want them, and it’s totally fine if you don’t. Look, “Tap Secret!” is a kind of confusing, really good time that features some terrific music and dancing. But under the hood there’s a larger statement about what types of music (and dance) are valued more in society and how, historically, jazz music and tap dance have generally been denied their due in popular culture. “Tap Secret!” appears to carry a subversive message about that—plus puppets and tap burpees. ¡Ay, caramba!