Chicago Tap Theatre’s “operas” have always been charmingly, and sometimes literally, cartoonish. Think Factory Theater minus the obscenity. But with Mama’s Boy, the 11th in the series, CTT grows up—a little. One classy first-time-ever touch: four onstage musicians play a score composed or arranged by two of them, Arne Parrott and Kurt Schweitz. And this shit is good. Mama’s Boy is set in the primordial ooze of Maxwell Street in the 20s and 30s, just as the Depression hits, and the tunes suggest jazz, blues, a little klezmer, and some tango, without ever overwhelming the story or the tap dancing, which establishes character and feeling.
At first I was worried there was too much going on in this four-ring circus—not only the live music but as many as 14 dancers onstage at once, slam poet Mark Kelly Smith wandering around narrating, and projections of archival photos and footage. But the story quickly comes together: a cheerful young man turned gangster gets played by a gold digger and a crime/political boss. Meanwhile the virtuous women, the mama and a goodhearted gal in love, get shafted. Under the direction of Harrison McEldowney, Mama’s Boy is endearingly kitschy—and more moving than any other CTT opera I’ve seen. In the principal roles, choreographer Mark Yonally, Jennifer Pfaff Yonally, Kirsten Uttich, Rich Ashworth, and Helen Gay are superb, deftly capturing their characters in movement.