'Rhythm," in the immortal words of Gloria Estéfan, "is gonna get you." Especially if you visit the Merriam Theater between Thursday and Dec. 30th to see the latest installment of STOMP.
This all-percussion show, which makes theatrical magic with objects from the local hardware store, was cocreated by British musicians Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas in 1991. The word-less, plot-free phenomenon has been playing in both London and New York City for more than 20 years. STOMP also has two international touring companies. It has won lots of awards and appeared in countless television specials, plus its own documentary film. It has traveled to more than 50 countries and is still delighting its original fans, while seducing new ones.
Think you've already seen it? Think again. Each of its companies has 12 cast members, only eight of whom are onstage any given night. They also switch parts. So it is nearly impossible to see the same STOMP twice. Moreover, to keep things fresh STOMP changes its numbers. Classic items - such as the push-broom orchestra and the newspaper vignette - are still there. But Philly audiences will be the first to see three brand-new sequences, featuring empty paint cans, huge tractor tires, and shopping carts.
Television ads for STOMP show strong men - and a few women - battling each other with trashcan lids, which makes the show seem intense, exhilarating, and loud.
It's all that, and more. But also less. Parts are quiet and rhythmically subtle, while others are laugh-out-loud funny. The performers wear tank tops and ripped jeans, plus steel-toed work boots chosen for safety and sound. But along with their fierce stares they can be endearing, even goofy.
In recent telephone interviews from their homes in Brighton, England, the cocreators discussed the show that transformed them from clever street musicians to the CEOs of what the Los Angeles Times called "a multicontinent theater empire."
Now in their 50s, both men remain artistically active. Cresswell, a self-taught drummer who for many years was STOMP's leader, no longer performs in this physically demanding show. But, along with McNicholas, he cocreated and conducts the Lost and Found Orchestra; the pair also direct IMAX nature films.
McNicholas plays violin, guitar, and keyboards; he also sings, acts, and is a writer. But, he noted, "I'm the one person connected with STOMP who does not play drums." The two men were bandmates in their 20s, and they've never stopped working together. Currently, they're cowriting a 3-D film of STOMP. McNicholas adds, "We even vacation together - with our families."
According to McNicholas, the secret to their successful collaboration goes back to his decision not to join the original cast of STOMP. Although he had performed in all their earlier efforts, McNicholas said, "STOMP needed an outside eye, someone out front . . . who could guard against the kind of self-indulgence a group of percussionists lock into," when they find an exciting groove and keep repeating it. To keep the audience engaged, it was important to vary both the rhythms and the dynamics.
"That makes it musical," McNicholas said. "Luke created the rhythms, and I edited them."
In addition, McNicholas designed the original lighting for STOMP and operated the lights in those early tours when he was one-half of the backstage crew.
Since it relies on the universal language of rhythm, STOMP translates easily to cultures far from the U.K. But over the years, Cresswell has noticed varied audience reactions. For example, he said, in Germany, "people like to clap along, throughout the show. We had to teach them not to." In Brazil, "they wanted to play onstage . . . and they're better than us!"
He also noted that Chinese and Japanese audiences "are more reserved - at first, they're not sure when to clap . . . but as soon as they realize they're invited in, it's OK."
Longtime STOMPer Ivan Delaforce will be part of the Merriam cast. The 45-year-old native of Hawaii started drumming when he was only 3. STOMP has been an important part of his life since 1995; he met his wife when both were in the show, and he is now its rehearsal director.
Most people, he said, "do spend a lot more time than they'd expected to" as part of STOMP. "It's like the misfit toys," but "we fit in, so it feels like a family. This is the show I always wanted to do."
Philadelphia audiences will see a few veteran performers like Delaforce, plus some with three or four years' experience in the show, and one woman whom the rest of the cast is meeting this week in rehearsals.
"I always learn from the audience's reaction," Delaforce said. STOMP draws all kinds of people, from "theater-subscription holders in their tuxedos . . . to young people who rock out. Even little kids get it," he said. "We love it when the audience is dancing in the aisles."
Friday to Tuesday at the Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad St. Tickets: $39.50-$75. Information: 215-731-3333 or www.kimmelcenter.org/broadway