Stomp (January 22, 2015)

'Stomp' at Bank of America Theatre
‘Stomp’ at Bank of America Theatre (Source:www.chicago-theater.com)

I wandered into Chicago’s vaunted Bank of America Theatre earlier this week armed with a healthy dose of skepticism. Of course, I was aware of “Stomp’s” reputation as a theatrical staple for the better part of the last two decades, performed in more than 50 countries in front of 24 million people. A work doesn’t often gain that type of cultural traction without quality.

But existentially I wondered if it were truly possible to tell a story with nothing more than sounds — human generated and otherwise. As anyone familiar with the material knows, “Stomp’s” performers “make a rhythm on anything we can get our hands on,” according to co-founder and director Luke Cresswell. Members of the troupe use their bodies, their feet and all sorts of unconventional instruments (brooms, plastic tubing, matchboxes) to generate the most alluring kind of analog, democratic symphony.

It’s in this last observation that audiences pick up the narrative thread of “Stomp.” The ideology tightly woven through two hours of a diverse cast using pedestrian objects to make art is, in its own ironic way, quietly revolutionary. Press materials describe the work’s impact as “a journey through sound, a celebration of the everyday and a comic interplay of characters wordlessly communicating through dance and drum.”

There is no hierarchy in this production. There’s no stratum of entitlement. Instead “Stomp” is a celebration of variety, universality and the simple joy of being really, really noisy in a world that often swallows our individual presence whole. Broadway in Chicago’s all-too brief run of the latest touring incarnation absolutely defies cynicism, offering a sonic and visual delight for audiences of all ages.

The cast is uniformly winning, a nonstop whirlwind of coordinated movement and percussion that serves as an instrument in its own right. The chemistry and talent is so compelling, it’s hard to single out favorites, but Cammie Griffin is a maelstrom. The ugly faces and dirty sounds she imparts with every committed step are a thing of visceral beauty. This gal is committed and you’ll want to get animal with her.

And while it’s typically bad form to use a review as a platform for shameless flirting, I’d like to send a special message to John Angeles. If by chance you have a thing for middle-aged theater critics, I might know just the lady for you (hint: it’s me). Angeles is a dynamic and gifted talent that demands attention. He is also impossibly sexy. The disappointed groans emanating from the crowd as he made his final exit stage right provided solid evidence that this reviewer was not the only one smitten.

In a series of percussive vignettes that don’t let up for a sonic second, highlights include an interlude featuring several performers strapped into harnesses. These cast members dangle from the ceiling, literally bouncing off walls as they play an unorthodox xylophone of kitchen utensils, garbage and metal. It’s like Cirque du Soleil meets the street. Another scene features several male cast members atop giant garbage can stilts like so many tactile, attractive Godzillas.

The show runs nearly two hours without intermission and every moment is mesmerizing. Not a second is wasted and the properly engaged audience member (because the sanity must be questioned of those tuned out) will not have cognitive space to worry about a drink refill or bathroom break. The experience is transformative for even the most seasoned theatergoer. A constant battle against the urge to jump on stage and join the troupe is the only uncomfortable feeling to be expected.

Chicago theater community: I wish we had longer to avail ourselves of more “Stomp,” but we don’t. Buy your tickets before the opportunity ends.

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