Live review: Changes: A Science Fiction Tap Dance Opera
During the 2009–10 competitive season, notoriously outlandish American figure skater Johnny Weir wore a typically flamboyant costume for his long program, Fallen Angel. On its back were two red gashes, the roots of wings ripped off, scars marking the condemnation of a once-free creature to Earth, gravity and mortality.
In Chicago Tap Theatre’s Changes: A Science Fiction Tap Dance Opera, through Sunday 20 at Stage 773, a similar fate befalls seven members of the Alliange, a race of tap-dancing aliens dressed in cool colors with elaborate Medusa-esque hairstyles that must involve wire. But whereas Weir’s costume only suggested his long program’s violent, unseen prologue, Changes has us watch as these creatures are depennated by the Dooshnees, a malevolent trio led by the square-haloed Altego, played by choreographer and CTT artistic director Mark Yonally.
The soundtrack to the Alliange’s mournful septet following this cruel carnage is David Bowie’s “5:15 The Angels Have Gone” from 2002’s Heathen (a lovely record, for the record). Yonally fills the long, pained weeeees and fooooorevers of its chorus with canons of arm movements that wash from right to left.
Full-body engagement also enlivens the scenes featuring Major Tom, played by Rich Ashworth, a rare breed of dancer as comfortable tapping as popping and locking. His entrance—to “Space Oddity,” natch, which by the way lasts 5:15—is a quiet cadenza from left to right, ingeniously lit by Josh Weckesser such that only his fluidly rippling arms and helmeted head are visible, floating toward the planet of the Alliange in a most peculiar way.
But he arrives too late to stop the Dooshnees, who have already acquired the feathers they need to jab into a disco ball about eight inches in diameter, which somehow fuels a cannon made out of a tube, a spotlight, a laptop and the frame of a papasan chair spray-painted silver. “I’m Afraid of Americans,” Bowie’s ’97 single cowritten by Brian Eno, accompanies the weapon’s onstage assembly by the enslaved Alliange, under the merciless supervision of Dooshnee second-in-command Provo (Stacy Milam, mugging up a storm) and her leggy deputy Ug (a blank Phil Brooks).
Things hit rock bottom once Tom is captured and imprisoned, with three other Alliange inside a force field of light whose surface, mime tells us, is blazingly hot. But this cell also contains some of the best tapping in Changes, an a capella quartet and another to “Under Pressure.”
“Let’s Dance” and “Heroes,” jarringly combined, herald a turning of the tide, but not before Altego enjoys a moment of flashy footwork. The papasan gun’s control panel’s screen’s digital countdown clock tells us time is running out. Are Dooshnee bonds impervious to sedition or could one, under the right circumstances, at a crucial moment, changing everything, be ripped from the group like a wing off of an angel?