For more than a decade, Chicago Tap Theatre has pioneered its own genre of summer entertainment in the form of the "tap opera," a tale told with lean narrative and lots of clickety-clacking feet.
"Mama's Boy," the troupe's 11th entry, plays Friday through June 30 at Stage 773, with some new twists this time around. Company founder Mark Yonally again choreographs and stars, and poetry slam guru Marc Kelly Smith returns as scenarist. But this largest production in the series yet, boasting 14 dancers, is also the first to feature live music, a combo including Arne Parrott and Kurt Schweitz, who co-composed the original score.
And celebrated Chicago choreographer Harrison McEldowney is on hand as director. Chicago Tap is clearly the ante. "We're excited because we feel we have such a good team," Yonally said.
The Jazz Age, Prohibition, bootleggers, flappers and Chicago history all factor into the "Mama's Boy" story. "We were originally inspired by Ken Burns' documentary on the period and at first planned to adapt the biography of a real-life figure," Yonally said.
Instead, working with Smith, who narrates and portrays a knife sharpener in the production, "Mama's Boy" is about a fictional character (Yonally) who's swept up in the gangster life of the 1920s, set against the backdrop of Chicago's fabled Maxwell Street neighborhood.
Some 90 percent of the story is told through tap, which is what makes these productions so unique. The original score, meanwhile, is a kind of hybrid fusing period music with more contemporary electronic strains. "A lot of it's electro jazz, a style popular in several European countries that blends urban American music of the '20s with music of the past 10 years or so," Yonally said.
The production's musical instrumentation includes keyboard, reeds, electric bass and harp.
There's a cautionary thread to the theme. "Act I takes place before the stock market crash, with a sense of exuberance and wealth, of how our hero hoped to use his skills to get in with the mob," Yonally said. "Act II is set after the crash, with a gentle undercurrent of social welfare, of people taking care of each other in contrast to the mob approach."
McEldowney, who met Yonally and crew some years ago in rehearsal studios and worked with him on an earlier project, says he admires Chicago Tap's brash originality. "I'm a musical theater guy, I'm far from an extraordinary tapper," said McEldowney, whose many credits include assistance staging of "Sunday in the Park with George" last fall at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. "But what he and this company do with their feet is so imaginative. And they're far-reaching in their programming. This is not just another collection of repertory dance pieces in a black box."
Yonally, in turn, said McEldowney arrived at the first rehearsal a little like a hurricane. "We felt we'd been hit by a truck," Yonally said. "The next session, he apologized for working so slowly because he said he hadn't been feeling well. Our eyebrows shot way, way up."
For tickets to "Mama's Boy" at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Av.: 773-327-5252 or stage773.com.
Spanish music, dance fest
Ensemble Espanol's annual Spanish Dance & Music Festival culminates this year with a program including three premieres Friday through Sunday at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.
The performances also feature the 20th-anniversary presentation of ensemble founder and artistic director Dame Libby Komaiko's "Bolero." Guest artists include Carmela Greco (Jose's daughter), Madrid's Paloma and Raquel Gomez and Cordoba's Jose Barrios.
A portion of Friday's proceeds will go to Dance for Life, the annual benefit that Ensemble Espanol played for the first time in 2010. The troupe has a busy summer, planning two trips to China in coming months and its debut this August in the Chicago Dancing Festival. The company is also featured in "Sobre las Olas -- A Story of Flamenco in the U.S.," an upcoming documentary on the art.
For tickets to the North Shore Center performances: 847-673-6300 or northshorecenter.org.
Chicago Rep at the Vittum
The Chicago Repertory Ballet returns with a program of works by various choreographers Friday through Sunday at the Vittum Theater.
Artistic director Wade Schaaf will provide his own original take on Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," the classic that, along with Nijinsky's choreography, inspired the most renowned scandal in dance history 100 years ago.
For tickets to the Vittum, 1012 N. Noble St.: chicagorepertoryballet.com.
Sid Smith is a Tribune special contributor.