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Chicago Tap Theatre’s ‘Mama’s Boy’ dazzles

Jennifer Pfaff Yonally Rich Ashworth are among ensemble “Mama’s Boy” presented by Chicago Tap Theatre Stage 773.

Jennifer Pfaff Yonally and Rich Ashworth are among the ensemble in “Mama’s Boy” presented by Chicago Tap Theatre at Stage 773.

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When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday

Where: Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont

Tickets: $20-$35

Info: (773) 327-5252;

Run time: 95 minutes, with one intermission

Updated: July 26, 2013 6:23AM

Who needs Baz Luhrmann and his blockbuster film version of “The Great Gatsby” when you can see “Mama’s Boy,” the world premiere dance theater piece being presented by the hugely ambitious and imaginative Chicago Tap Theatre?

With a story set in Chicago during the Prohibition era — beginning in the wild and crazy Roaring Twenties, and then moving on into the down-and-out early years of the Depression — “Mama’s Boy” follows the impossible quest for love and success pursued by Reginald Remus (Mark Yonally, in realistic “dead end kid” mode), who starts out as an innocent in knickers and ends up a hardened criminal.

Think champagne and beer (all of it taboo, of course), the Charleston and the penniless slouch, the scarlet woman and the mobster-turned-political candidate, bootleggers and cops, and pretty much everyone on the take (or on the dole). But mostly think of the rat-a-tat-tat of tap dancers whose emotions are filtered through elaborate footwork, and whose expressive faces and gestures say the rest.

To tell this story, the show uses the highly articulate language of tap dance (courtesy of Yonally, the company’s founder and ever-ingenious choreographer), with brief but effective narration created and performed by Jocabo, a crusty writer-turned tradesman and bagman played by Marc Kelly Smith (creator of the fabled International Poetry Slam movement), and airtight direction by veteran spectacle-maker Harrison McEldowney. A sensational ensemble of 14 dancers is set in motion by a sublime four-piece onstage playing a richly jazzy score by keyboardist Arne Parrott and bass player Kurt Schweitz (with fine backing from Kurt Bjorling on clarinet and sax and harpist Annette Bjorling).

Yonally has been perfecting this “tap opera” format for years, but “Mama’s Boy,” his 11th piece, really sets the joint jumping with its hybrid of percussive dance and storytelling that lies somewhere between a story ballet and musical theater, yet has a rhythmic identity all its own.

Reginald is seduced into a life of crime by the experienced mobster and bootlegger, Brady (Rich Ashworth) who has two mistresses at his beck and call. One is the sparkling, heartless seductress, Dolores (Jennifer Pfaff Yonally, a leggy spitfire of a flapper), who plays Reginald like a pipe. The other is the aristocratic Molly (a wonderfully nuanced Kirsten Uttich), who turns out to have a good heart and even cares for Reginald’s Mama (Helen Gay), but then learns the hard way that no good deed goes unpunished.

The soloists shine, but the “corps” (Matthew Anderson, Grace Gimpel, Annette Kosin, Sioned Papparotto, Matt Pospeshil, Jamie Salas, Mike Salomon, Jessica Williams and Hanna Wilson) keep the momentum going, whether slapping “tomato” labels on crates of beer or lining up in the penitentiary.

Anna Henson’s ideally grainy black-and-white projection design and Clare Kemock’s period-perfect costumes add vintage zest.

Meanwhile, Chicago Tap Theatre, now celebrating its 10th anniversary, has been invited to perform in Spain and France. So while all the dancing is underway, so is a campaign to cover travel costs (visit Hard to imagine a better bunch of cultural ambassadors.

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