Each year when Winter transitions to Spring, we look forward to the exhale that comes as flowers bloom and the river thaws. This year, more than ever, as we attempt to shake the doldrums of a COVID-19 winter, the sunny weather and warming temperatures are breathing both life and hope back into our city. On the sunny afternoon of March 28, Chicago Tap Theatre sprung to life in their latest project, “A Spring in Our Step,” and effectively embodied the emotional boost that comes alongside the seasonal transition.
This hyper-productive company has created and produced three new performances throughout the year-long pandemic — a tremendous accomplishment. Similar to the Chicago Tap Theatre performance I reviewed back in July, 2020—“30 Feet Together, 6 Feet Apart”— the Vimeo-hosted event partnered with music director JC Brooks, who MC-ed the event, and the powerful band of bassist Evan Levine, pianist Brad Macdonald and drummer Kevin Marks. It was comforting to see the same, familiar faces. And COVID-19 compliant protocols flashing across my computer screen established a level of trust surrounding social distancing protocols.
Perks for early arrivers included short snippets of teens and ‘tweens performing heart-warming, self-choreographed one-minute marvels to the likes of Bruno Mars, The Jackson 5 and several other upbeat musicians. These young artists perfectly teed up the warm introduction from Chicago Tap Theatre’s founder and artistic director, Mark Yonally, in which he further explained the company’s recognition of and compliance with COVID-19 protocols.
Throughout the 45-minute, nine-piece performance, moments of laughter, exhalation and sheer joy brought life to the stage as the company blended newly-crafted dances — like company dancer Molly Smith’s “This Will Be Our Year” — with older Chicago Tap Theatre repertoire —such as Rich Ashworth’s “Call Me Al.” The jazzy musical stylings, played live with fervor from the back of the stage, left nothing to be desired. Every shuffle and scuffle mirrored the band’s rhythms and melodies, succinctly.
Popping colors and smiling eyes opened the show as tappers Ali Calamoneri, Anna Lynn Robbins, Heather Latakas, Molly Eder, Molly Smith, Sara Anderson and Sterling Harris devoured the diminutive stage. Retro costuming — which reappeared in Ashworth’s “Call Me Al'' and Yonally’s mood-boosting finale “Sister Ray Charles” — would be overpowering in any other context, but the high energy, overly vibrant opening number made the red, blue, pink and orange costume combinations seem almost dull in comparison. The virtual elements of the afternoon went off without a hitch, which is never guaranteed (as we’ve all come to learn).
Pieces like “You’re Going to be OK,” sung and choreographed by company member Sara Anderson, showed great promise. Performed by Latakas, Smith and Harris, the overlapping of dancers’ taps gave new meaning to the concept of ripple effects and pulled focus to specific rhythms hidden within the song. Anderson opted to use three white chairs, which seemed wholly unnecessary, if not a bit cliché, when paired with the slower, more dramatic piece of music. Anderson’s choreography was strong enough to stand without the extraneous prop.
Other dances — “Alfonso Muskedunder” by company dancer and rehearsal director Harris, “The Only Difference” by company member Calamoneri, “This Will Be Our Year” by Smith and “Sister Ray Charles” by Yonally — blended together seamlessly. The musical transitions flowed as perfectly as the videos shifted from one to the next, and the dancers admirably exuded emotions through Chicago themed face masks. Consistent cheer and high energy gave way to monotony, but the show’s pacing moved quickly so I never got lost in it.
It was works like Yonally’s “Here Comes the Fall” and “Same But Different” that connected with me on a deeper level. Both played with the removal of musical elements, but in the latter, the choice to pull the musicians out entirely allowed the audience to focus solely on hearing the specificity of sound produced by the quartet of original company members: Jennifer Pfaff, Kirsten Uttich, Ashworth and Yonally. With freedom to focus singularly on the dancers, I noticed while one dancer would engage their upper body to enhance the sounds they produced, another would remain upright and contained while executing the same taps. “Same but Different,” in both name and choreography, highlighted the individuality that is and can be expressed through tap dance.
While I didn’t see the second performance in Chicago Tap Theatre’s trilogy of COVID-concerts, “Safe and Sound: Tap Dance for Your Soul,” the overall artistic quality of “A Spring in Our Step” wasn't all that different than July’s “30 Feet Together, 6 Feet Apart.” The tone of this performance was palpably more jovial and the company has undeniably proved consistency of style. While not choreographically earth-shattering, “A Spring in Our Step” was predictably entertaining and flew by at a rapid pace.
Chicago Tap Theatre’s “A Spring in Our Step” is available online through April 4. Visit chicagotaptheatre.com for more information, or click the event page below.