Rhythm is All

It's quite likely that someone near you is drumming fingers, or jangling keys, or tapping feet, or opening and shutting a snap over and over and over again. Or maybe you're working late and here comes the cleaning crew down the hall, sweeping and spritzing in soft-shoe rhythm. People -- all people, according to Luke Cresswell -- are natural-born drummers. Everybody likes to bash stuff, and everyone is incessantly tapping; that's what Cresswell thinks, and he's turned his theory into a successful show.

Cresswell is a percussionist with a punkish pedigree who currently writes music for British television and is largely responsible for Stomp, a performance piece in which he's joined by longtime partner Steve Nicholas and a dancing percussionist troupe called the Yes/No People.

Stomp, an aptly named stage show that drew raves from the UK to New York, is presently on a North American tour that brings the noise to Houston this week. A melange of the fine folk art of hambone, the stage art of tapper Honi Cole, Three Stooges slapstick, and the sounds of kids and garbage men banging stuff in the street are incorporated in this cacophony deluxe.

For 90 minutes, the theatrical's cast of workmen dance and play with everything up to and including the kitchen sink. The first cast members slink on-stage in dusty work clothes and heavy boots. The opening number, on an almost dark stage, employs a trio flipping the caps of Zippo lighters -- a streetwise doo-wop of tinny snicks, sparking flints and extinguished flames. The intimate intro is followed by increasingly complex and bizarre musical numbers.

Stomp is true musical theater. The Yes/No People company makes music of its junk and tells engaging stories. There's even a theatrical dark note: an anarchist in a beret, unhappy with his life amongst the working class and upset by all the racket. The rest of the Yes/No People are too busy stomping to care.

The appeal of Stomp is something akin to that of a puppet show. No, more like the Muppets. You know, with the Muppets, who knew? Just felt mannequins, puppets as usual -- you'd think. But we so loved those damned things that their creator's death was international news. Stomp's ballet of dustbins and push brooms has the same sort of appeal. It seems impossible that such crude instruments could be used to make art so moving, and so delightful, so goofy-as-heck and yet still sweetly dignified. Cresswell and the Yes/ No People even make you clap along and like it, which is a trick not many musical enterprises are willing to try these days.

Stomp may not have the longevity of Kermit and his colleagues, but nonetheless, this entirely acoustic orchestra of found objects is completely charming and, like so much great music, it sounds simple. Six men and two women flailing rubber hoses and shuffling hobnailed boots could easily add up to an evening of noisy, unfocused performance art nonsense.

It's tough to say precisely what Cresswell and his unseen, non-performing co-conspirator Steve McNicholas have got so completely right.

Precision helps. There isn't a second in the show that is not completely choreographed, from the first snick of a lighter snapping open right on through to the glorious dustbin finale. Flawless execution is certainly a plus in this strange performance, but execution can't explain everything. (Abba, after all, traded in flawlessly phonetic pronunciation, and they still sucked.)

The real appeal of Stomp is probably that, like a fairy tale, it succeeds in recapturing completely uncomplicated childlike joy. There's a raw, primordial pleasure in hitting things, and no instinct runs deeper than rhythm.

Stomp celebrates the simplest joys of rhythm; rhythm from the first patty-cake up though the vigorous banging of toddlers right on to the carefully choreographed creaking of old folks' rockers. "I think," says Cresswell, "that's the appeal of Stomp. I think if it's tapped into anything, it's tapped into that -- that rhythm is everywhere, and a lot of people are frustrated drummers."

Why frustrated? Well, even Cresswell admits to being annoyed by childish banging. "My eldest son is three and a half," he says, "and sometimes when he's banging for half an hour, I just yell, could he please be quiet? I'm quite a hypocrite, really. Then I take him to see the show and he sees what his dad does for a living. He's going to be quite screwed up when he gets older."

Cresswell also suspects that professional drummers, and others among the truly avant-garde, are equally frustrated. During the New York run, Stomp was repeatedly compared to the Blue Man Group show Tubes. Cresswell doesn't see a similarity. (Neither do I. The Blue Man men are painted blue and have food fights. This sounds far more exciting than it actually is.)

"I think it's a comment on the New York theater scene, really," Cresswell says. "It's quite sad that in a town that is supposed to be vibrant and important to the arts, they've got this quite strange set-up with their off-Broadway theater where when two shows that are playing in same-sized houses are both sort of off-the-wall, they both get pigeonholed into the same category." The Brighton boy is critical of both downtown and uptown theater. "Broadway is sewn up with the big musicals," he says, understating the case. "You would hope that if two other types of shows are doing well off-Broadway and are sort of different, they'd look for what's different and try to put some new ideas in."

Cresswell himself has already got working ideas for a new show: "We'd like to muck about in film. I'd like to do something bigger, with more people. I'd like to put something out with a bit more venom."

Meanwhile, Stomp travels on. The specially trained New York cast continues (using British dustbins because American trash cans aren't sturdy enough to survive more than one show), and Stomp sold out Palm Springs, Berkeley and Los Angeles. L.A. was a hoot for Cresswell, he says, because "stars would come. Coming from Britain there are all these sort of huge, giant names that you see in the papers, like Spielberg, and then someone comes back and says he's here. It was quiet weird."

The Yes/No People group formed in '86. In '91, Stomp had its first performance. There were no financial backers. Cresswell laughs at the idea that someone would give them money. "What, to do Stomp initially? We did it ourselves. Stomp's been done everywhere by ourselves, apart from New York." He makes it sound as though they did it themselves very easily. "It started at the Edinburgh Festival. I knew the promoters there and I knew the festival quite well, and I just persuaded them to stick us on at midnight. I told them that it would be loud and noisy and I'm sure it's what you want and it went really well."

It went so well that the show was soon booked in London and became a certified smash. The original off-Broadway run was so successful the show couldn't close when the Yes/No People had to continue on their tour. "We brought Stomp to New York in February," Cresswell says. "We did four or five months, then we trained up an American cast and they're still doing New York."

Training up a cast could be a bit of a trick. It's not as if there are scores of young percussionist/dancer hopefuls out there with adequate training to step into the roles. Stomp is a unique show. Few music and theater classes prepare one for swinging from a chain, striking piping, and functioning as a hammer hitting strings. "Everyone's really self-taught," Cresswell explains. "Stomp is really a self-teaching process because it's all sort of experimental." The original cast consisted of "people I'd worked with before on different projects. I knew everyone quite well from different things. I thought that was the right combination to do a show."

Cresswell, too, describes himself as "a self-taught drummer from rock and roll and all that side of it. The theater is a new area." It's a new area in which he and his crew have received nothing but good reviews. Maybe that's because the whole boisterous, let's-put-on-a-show production is unconventional in form and attitude without a whit of self-righteousness. Or maybe it's just because Stomp is as much fun as splashing in puddles.

Stomp is performed at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, November 10-12 at the Wortham Center, Cullen Theater, 500 Texas. Tickets cost $18, $22, and $28. Call 227-ARTS for info.


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