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Stomp is the monster truck rally of the theater world

Why this show has endured for three decades.

“Stomp,” which has endured for three decades, is at the Merriam Theater.
“Stomp,” which has endured for three decades, is at the Merriam Theater.Read moreCourtesy Kimmel Center

Since 1991, Stomp has banged and crashed and played for millions across stages in Europe, North America, and Asia. Seeing it for the first time, I understand why. Percussion and rhythm sound through every heartbeat, and the skill on display during this tour elicited a collective tapping of feet punctuated only by hoots and call outs.

In the current staging, a rotating cast of 10 started softly, sweeping the bristles of push brooms across the floor like drum brushes, stomping their work boots in time to taps of the handles. Later, they would achieve similar effects with tubing, five gallon tin cans partially filled with water (to achieve a similar set of pitches often performed with wine glasses), and later, shopping carts or kitchen sinks worn like the drum kits in a marching band.

Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas' direction interspersed scenes of light humor between the percussive musical score. Ivan Salazar led the ensemble and would spar in rhythmic one-upmanship with Steve Weiss and Andrew Brought. Cade Slattery would play comic foil, on his trope of a less-coordinated dweeb.

A backdrop of two chrome ladders led to a balcony that stood over a pair of entrances. The bare center stage saw too little group choreography, though when it appeared, it exhilarated. In these moments, McNicholas and Neil Tiplady's lighting created the combative feel of a sci-fi thriller.

That said, I'm glad Stomp lasted only 90 minutes. Each time I thought the show reached a crescendo (three big numbers could have ended it), a softer interlude would ensue. After the ensemble dueled in a magical, rhythmic clash of quarterstaffs (here, the lighting excelled), Salazar or Slattery would reappear to defuse the tension with a humorous moment (all pantomimed). Later, after pounding on giant inner-tubes strapped to their bodies, the cast brought the audience to a trancelike fevered pitch, before the lights dropped and another number picked up.

The final ensemble number did not disappoint, with the cast swinging from ropes across a scaffolding bounded by chain-link fence, drumming on sign posts and buckets, others whirling across the stage with a blend of capoeira as they clashed with trash can lids.

Like a well-choreographed fireworks finale, it excited and entertained, and will remain moderately memorable. But like any pure spectacle, it asks no questions and provides no answers, its music and dance falling somewhere between watching a marching band competition and early Cirque du Soleil. In a larger sense, Stomp functions as the monster truck rally of the theater world, a step above NASCAR and daredeviling, a thin line below The Fast and the Furious movies. Spectacle above substance, artistry but not art.