Tidings of Comfort and Joy (and Tap)

The Nutcracker wasn’t the only Chicago holiday dance tradition that got a reboot this year. Celebrating its 10th anniversary, Chicago Tap Theatre (CTT)’s annual holiday offering called “Tidings of Tap” made a big move from the intimate UIC Theater to the 900-seat North Shore Center for the Performing Arts (NSCPA) for a one-day-only matinee Dec. 18. CTT gave the show some necessary enhancements to match its beefy new venue, although the luxurious and large NSCPA is unique in that it feels quite intimate despite its size, and by switching to a new neighborhood and single show format, the place was pleasantly filled to the gills. Among the changes were the addition of several new dances supporting a loose narrative, and a few production enhancements like the wintery drops hanging near the stage’s wings. Featuring the blithe and bendy rhythmic gymnast Dasha Merulov, the story surrounds her pursuit of two colored balls. The first, a plain ball, she acquires in a game with some tapping forest nymphs, but this ball is a disappointment when it plops to the ground without permission. The second, a sparkly, fancier, bouncier ball that magically drops down from the rafters is just what Merulov always wished for, but is stolen by a Grinch, leaving the audience with an adorable cliffhanger at the top of intermission. Dasha’s witty charm de-Scrooges the Grinch (portrayed by a new CTT apprentice, Davon Suttles) just long enough for him to soften and give it back, and they all dance happy tap medleys and live happily ever after.

You can let the ball mean whatever you want it to: the holiday spirit, or the innocence of childhood, or maybe it’s just a ball. Like the Nutcracker, the story doesn’t entirely make sense, and it doesn’t have to. It’s charming and gleeful and heart-rending at times. Tidings of Tap’s new narrative and extras also give it a less Christmasy vibe. With fewer of the stock Christmas numbers they’ve danced in the past, tapping trees and snowflakes now bookend audience favorites like the Peanuts-inspired “Skating” and the rousing “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah.” I imagine the narrative will continue to change and grow and improve as the years pass, since Artistic Director Mark Yonally and Music Director Kurt Schweitz refuse to simply let good things lie (that’s a compliment). In any case, an ever-evolving Tidings of Tap will likely jive with north suburban Skokie and the venue that has promised to be its home for at least the next year.  

It’s worth mentioning, however, that one thing about this show should never, ever change, and that’s Yonally’s improvised duet with bassist Kurt Schweitz (and a little bit back-up bari sax), set to a jazz rendering of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. I’ve said this before, and mean it now more than ever, but “Rest Ye, Man” is the essence of Chicago Tap Theatre in one tiny tap carol: the mutual respect between tap and live music is so present and palatable here, even in this big schmaltzy space, and we were at once transported to a seedy, sparsely populated nightclub, with smoke and dirty martinis all around. That’s a holiday treat I can get behind.