Stomp and Circumstance

An indefinable tribute to all things rhythmic, Stomp has officially made the transition from hip happening to pop-culture reference. Though it already had its own fan club, Web site and monster-size merchandising machine, the clincher for the troupe came when its members turned up in television spots for Target department stores, pounding out a tribal beat on that week's sale items.

For the uninitiated, Stomp is a nouveau form of musical theater, a fast-moving, athletic, rhythm-based 90 minutes of percussion played by eight sweaty, muscle-bound musicians. The numbers have names like "Brooms" and "Hands and Feet" and are played on plastic shopping bags, metal buckets, bunches of keys, and cigarette lighters. There's no narrative or dialogue, and no melody to speak of; just a bunch of guys (and the occasional gal) keeping time on a heap of household items.

The show's indefinable nature, according to the Stompers themselves, is part of its appeal. "Stomp isn't really about anything," says 24-year-old Seth Ullian, who was a struggling actor/musician before he hooked up with the troupe three years ago. "I suppose we're really only interested in entertaining people. But I guess you could say we're typified by a certain lack of cheesiness."

That lack of cheesiness led to Stomp's solid--and quite sudden--success a few years ago. The show originated at the Edinburgh Festival in 1991, the offshoot of a British busking band called Pookiesnackenburger, and almost immediately began stomping around the globe, winning Obie, Drama Desk and Olivier awards along the way and dragging broken attendance records behind it (most notably as the fastest-selling show in the history of London's Royal Festival Hall, a record previously held by a 1972 Frank Sinatra concert). Stomp has since splintered into two touring companies and a New York troupe that's been performing off-Broadway for the past four years.

Ullian, who usually performs with the New York company, is a little tired of trying to explain exactly what Stomp is, but he's keen on discussing the group's various musical influences. "We pile up American and British rock, funk, West African rhythms, and Kodo drumming from Japan," he says. "But we're encouraged to bring our own influences and styles, too. Like there's one guy in the group who's very into King Crimson, and another guy who is an old George Clinton fan. All that shows up in the mix."

"If there's a message in Stomp," says the show's creator Steve McNicholas, "it's that you can make something out of nothing. Using junk, household and industrial objects, by its very nature, challenges the issue of waste and challenges the notion of culture as being highbrow or detached."

Don't look for Stomp's subtext, Ullian warns. "You'll miss all the fun if you're thinking instead of tapping your feet. Mostly we're just saying that there's rhythm in everything; it's the universal language that speaks to everybody. We're all united by rhythm."

--Robrt L. Pela

Stomp performs Tuesday, July 7, through Sunday, July 12, at the Orpheum Theater, 203 West Adams. Showtime is 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, July 10; 5 and 9 p.m. Saturday, July 11; and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, July 12. Tickets range from $30 to $40. 994-2787.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela