A stage show uses everyday objects to create hard hitting beats
MOST OF US have experimented with the sonic possibilities of everyday objects, though it may have been some time ago. What kid hasn't moved a drinking straw in and out of a plastic lid to hear that hollow squeak, stretched the mouth of an inflated balloon to hear it shriek, or run a wet finger along the inside of a crystal glass to make it sing? Stomp, the world-famous percussion and dance show now at the Hippodrome, plays to that long-lost sense of exploration. In a series of tight routines, eight talented percussionists pull magical sounds from dozens of ordinary objects, from rubber tubing to garbage can lids to Zippo lighters. In their hands, a push broom along the floor sounds like a jazz brush beat and a palm to a water cooler bottle produces an eerie, spacey whumph.
The brainchild of Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas, Stomp was first performed in England in 1991. In the intervening years, it has become a precision-crafted piece. The set, for instance, looks at first glance like a busy cross between a factory and a Cracker Barrel, with weathered metal signs reading interstate 69 and leaving pittsburgh, paint cans and industrial storage containers of all varieties lining the walls. As the show progresses, however, each seemingly random element comes to life as an instrument.
But despite the many revisions and updates it has undergone, the show retains a certain early '90s tone. Perhaps it's the do-it-yourself aesthetic, the combat boots and cut-off plaid shirts the performers seem to favor, or the fact that one skit involves characters reading actual printed newspapers. The show's age isn't in and of itself a problem, but after thousands of performances all over the world—in 36 different countries—the spontaneous invention it celebrates feels a bit muffled by a self-conscious staginess.
The performance has no plot and no dialogue, but there are a couple of loose characters. Guy Mandozzi plays the guy who's the butt of all the jokes. He's the one in oversized pants who, in routine after routine, ends up with the misshapen broom, the oversized mop, the tiny paint can dwarfed by the others' garbage cans. It's classic slapstick and, as such, can be pretty ho-hum. But it does work in a few cases. In one scene, the performers gather in a cluster around Mandozzi as he's reading the paper, clearly bent on annoying him. Each brings his or her own newspaper and, beginning with a scattering of coughs, grunts, and paper rustlings, they gradually launch into a rapid syncopated rhythm that is hilarious and more musical than one would expect.
Such humor helps to break up the long stretches of percussion, but for those who've endured drum circles or lengthy drum solos, Stomp may not, um, resonate well. It's not that the routines aren't unfailingly impressive. In one the performers whirl in complex circles, crashing shiny garbage can lids against each other. In another, each plays on a different length of rubber tubing, creating a weird boinging symphony reminiscent of an mbira (a thumb piano). At the end, the percussionists actually strap huge garbage cans to their feet and stomp, filling the auditorium with bass sounds you can physically feel. But without rest periods or a plot to hang the show on, even virtuoso drumming eventually begins to grow just a bit tiresome. Because dude, how many phat beats can a person handle?
Don't tell that to the little boy who was sitting near me at one recent performance, however. He shrieked with delight throughout the show, so much that the performers began playing directly to him. And that's the bottom line. Stomp is fantastic for kids. It inspires wonder and curiosity, and like that old children's TV classic "3-2-1 Contact," it even introduces some elementary physics. In one scene, four percussionists emerge on stage with huge metal sinks full of water hanging from chains around their necks. The performers squeak their rubber gloves on the metal and hit their palms against the sinks, emptying out water to change the pitch.
Here's hoping that boy went home, walked straight past his Xbox and started beating on some pots and pans.
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