'Tidings of Tap' rescues light and joy from a pandemic season of darkness

Chicago Tap Theatre’s annual “Tidings of Tap” has a whole different feel this year, partly because it comes to us streaming online for the first time (Dec. 18-20). Videographer Kevin Larson's electronic delivery is flawless, however, and watching it from the privacy of my home, I was as captivated and engaged as I had ever been seeing this delightful show live in years past.

The more significant difference for “Tidings” audiences today is in the current circumstances that shape our perception and appreciation of it, and that of life in general.

This broadcast of the taped 2019 live public stage performance at Skokie’s North Shore Center for the Performing Arts has arrived at a time when its isolated audiences are navigating a world we never imagined, where the life and death risk of the coronavirus is the new normal, and when our country has been so recently ravaged by a political arena rife with discord.

In the darkest season of the darkest year, this bright holiday offering lifts our hearts and fills our homes with light and a love for life that renews spirits and rekindles faith in our capacity to rescue joy from the jaws of despair. It also represents the most evolved, rhythmically sophisticated version of “Tidings of Tap,” to date.

Under the masterful directorial hand (and feet) of choreographer/dramatist/musician/director and all-around theatrical visionary Billy Siegenfeld (founder/director of the Jump Rhythm Jazz Project), “Tidings” has evolved in dramatic structure, with seamless transitions, lively pacing and enhanced choreographic range.

The two-act show has been expanded from the original Marc Kelly Smith-inspired version and smartly organized into four discrete, seasonally-themed choreographic collections: Winter; Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Some of the numbers remain from previous iterations of “Tidings” and some are new to this production.

Chicago Tap Theatre’s live, on-stage musicians, led by “Tidings” musical director Corbin Andrick, are an integral visual presence and a musical treasure, with violin, woodwinds, keyboard, percussion and vocals. Familiar seasonal and holiday tunes and carols comprise most of the score and provide thematic consistency. Musical arrangements that span traditional renditions and stylistic riffs on the originals, ranging from jazz and blues to swing and klezmer, add rhythmic variation and texture to the various group and solo dance numbers in all four segments.

“Winter is Coming,” choreographed by Siegenfeld and CTT artistic director Mark Yonally, opens the show’s Winter segment with a slow, haunting piano solo, gently drawing both dancers and audience into the scene with the season’s first snowflakes and the magical transformation of the floor surface into “ice” the dancers slide and glide across.

An effective, light-hearted libretto connects all four of the show’s segments in a simple but effective story, anchored by featured performer and rhythmic gymnast, Dasha Merkulova. The winsome Merkulova brings a lyrical style and a spot-on combination of ballet and gymnastic dance to her refreshing portrayal of an innocent young girl who needs some cheering up. The ensemble’s gift to her of a long flowing ribbon attached to a wand ignites her playful wonder.

When two mischievous boys (Isaac Stauffer and Case Prime) tease her and steal the ribbon from her early on in the opening Winter segment, it sets up a dramatic through-line that provides handy transitions, adding dramatic build to Merkulova’s efforts to get it back, and a bit of comic relief between the various holiday songs and thematic holiday sections.

Both storytelling and tapping are nuanced and crystal clear, a signature CTT combination of tap articulations that “speak” the dramatic subtext and just-right pantomime, focused dramatic intention and playful, authentic dramatic interaction between the dancers. While dance requires a bit of exaggeration in its delivery of dramatic action, the naturalism of the dancers’ attention to their dramatic needs is a credit to Siegenfeld’s skillful direction.

Costume designer Emma Culimore’s subtle seasonal wardrobe of “everyday” clothes give just enough mix and match coordination and suggestion of the occasion while maintaining the casual conceit of “come as you are.”

You don’t automatically go to “shtetl” when you think of tap dance, but Yonally and Siegenfeld have created a new and infectious genre in Klezmer tap, combining Yiddish folk dance forms, gestures and rhythms with classic tap licks. The newly expanded Hanukkah segment, capitalizing literally on “untapped” territory, adds a marvelous richness to “Tidings of Tap.”

Yonally’s solo, a cappella dancing opens the “Christmas” segment tapping out the unmistakable lyrics of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and ushers in a non-stop medley of large and small group numbers danced to all our favorite Christmas carols. Yonally’s poignant solo to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” underscores the intensity and heartache of our isolation during the pandemic this year.

The production’s culmination in the New Year’s Eve segment shines with particular optimism. The polish and pizzaz of Chicago Tap Theatre comes through stronger than ever, but the spirit of hope and optimism that fills the entire show wins the prize. Bravo, and thank you, Chicago Tap Theatre, for a lovely holiday gift!