By Bryson David Hoff
There are certain theatre pieces that achieve such a level of cultural influence that separating the hype from the performance becomes difficult.
Blue Man Group, which has been in residence at the Briar Street Theatre for nearly two decades, might be the best example, closely followed by Stomp, which Broadway in Chicago has now returned for the holiday season to the Broadway Playhouse.
As most are no doubt aware, the show consists of a series of musical performances melding street percussion using entirely found objects, contemporary dance, and physical comedy, all performed by a small ensemble of dancer-percussionists. The premise may be simple, but the intricacy and pin-point precision necessary to pull off the stunts has taken this human spectacle from its humble beginnings in the UK fringe scene in the 1990s to the global phenomenon that it is today.
But does it live up to the hype? After 25 years, does the magic still hold up? The answer is a resounding and whole-hearted “Yes.”
Though many readers have probably seen video recordings of the group (As of this writing, nearly the entire show can be found on Youtube, that’s how ubiquitous it is), the live experience truly contains a palpable magic that a recording cannot capture. In a venue like the Broadway Playhouse that is able to maintain a sense of intimacy even in a high-capacity auditorium, an audience member can feel each beat and, given the freedom to choose where to look instead of being forced into a point-of-view by a camera, appreciate the intricacy and virtuosic skill of the entire ensemble in the piece’s many whole-group numbers.
On top of the intrinsic sensory pleasure of the live experience, the current touring company lends the evening a youthful energy that makes the show feel brand new. Their exuberance is positively infectious, and they play off of each other incredibly well in each sense of the word. Their musicianship is undeniable and, perhaps even more impressively, their ability to convey character, relationship, and emotion even while pulling off intricate musical numbers and feats of athleticism.
According to the official website, the ensemble rotates and is not the same at each performance, but press night performance stand-outs included John Angeles in his muscular and charming turn as the jockish leader of the tribe; the subtly sardonic, April Ludgate-esque Kris Lee; and the enthusiastic but chronically unlucky Reggie Talley. The cast is universally solid, however, and each is given ample opportunity to shine.
If there is any weakness in this troupe, it may be that the energy of the performers is too great for some of the props. More than one push broom was broken over the course of the evening, however the speed with which the stage crew was able to toss a replacement onstage from the wings suggests that this is simply the cost of doing business. All told, though, this is a tiny nitpick and, if anything, might even add to the impressiveness of the performance by adding yet another moving piece to the musical mechanism and serving as a physical manifestation of the performers’ musical passion, akin to the broken strings that dangle from end of a concert violinist’s bow at the end of a concerto.
In short, Stomp is well worth the price of admission. Parents raising artistically inclined children looking for a culturally oriented family outing should put this toward the top of their lists. But anyone, regardless of age, with an interest in theatre, music or dance who has not had the opportunity to see it live would do well to check out Stomp at the Broadway Playhouse.
Broadway in Chicago presents “Stomp” through January 1, 2017 at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut Street. More information and tickets are available here.