DCW On-Line: Stillwater Review 2

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Stillwater show true “beauty” as Regiment holds off bold and brassy Crown

June 22, 2008 – Stillwater, MN – There were two statements made during “Drum Beauty” at Stillwater Area High School Stadium on the second night of the Drum Corps International season. First, the organizers and sponsors of this annual show — now in its 45th year – know how to do a drum corps show well. And second, Carolina Crown knows how to “Finis” a show, even following the eventual winner and Midwestern favorite, Phantom Regiment.

On a near perfect night for drum corps, some 4,000 people packed the home grandstand, with a couple of hundred more sitting in the general admission seats on the far side. They were treated to a show that featured good parking, easy access to corps souvenir stands, great food choices and a crowd-pleasing, 10-corps contest that ran precisely on time.

DCI Executive Director Dan Acheson was there to help present awards and no doubt take notes on a show that’s a model for other summer tour event sponsors to follow.

Carolina Crown seems to have mastered the model to repeat as “The People’s Champs”. The corps’ formula seems to take a bold, brassy production of fan favorites — this year with DCI’s expanded 150-member limit featuring a record 80 brass, including a record-tying 16 tubas, to go along with 30 percussion (11PP-9S-5T-5B) — interpret it through a talented and expressive color guard and add just enough visual demand to create an ensemble feast for the eyes and the ears.

It’s almost as if this year’s production, “Finis” — featuring the endings of 13 selections that might be considered some of drum corps’ greatest hits — is a reward to fans for making Crown’s “Triple Crown” so wildly popular a year ago. But Program Coordinator Jim Coates says it’s not really about the greatest hits, just the best ending.

“I’m not so sure it started out as being the ‘best of drum corps’. It just started out as a composer in search of the great ending and going schizophrenic and mad in the midst of it,” Coates said. “So we do 13 different tunes 19 different ways and try to seamlessly meld them in between.

“We still have some things to work on,” he said. “We still have a beginning to add, which is coming up in about three or four days — probably in a week, we’ll probably have it all in at that point. So there’s still a missing tune in the beginning — or part of a tune, as we do everything — and Candide is missing in the beginning. The ending’s also due to change and some other little parts going throughout.”

There’s no shortage of endings already, what with 1812 Overture, Appalachian Spring and Hallelujah Chorus all blaring in a medley as the corps pushes triumphantly to the front during its climatic finish. It takes a big sound, particularly at the low end, to give the program enough “oomph” to pull off all these drum corps classics. But Crown has plenty of brass muscle — even carrying six brass “understudies” this summer to keep its 80-member ranks full — giving it more than enough power to bring the house down, no matter where the corps performs.

“Honestly, our first show last night at Rockford, we were half expecting them to boo because we were playing 1812, which I know is one of their (Phantom Regiment’s) favorite songs,” said 19-year-old Brian “Gio” Giordano of Fairfax, VA, one of the 16 tubas who ironically was a Phantom Regiment low brass alternate last year.

“If you look at our closer, we’re doing moves that other corps have done in the past,” he said. “Like the tubas, we do the sunburst that the Troopers do. We have the bari/euphs doing the Phantom Regiment power wedge. We have a Z-pull going on with the trumpets. We have a dissolving company front going on with the mellos. It’s great playing all this great music and getting out there having fun. And I just love how the crowd’s reacting to it.”

Of course, nobody does the classics better than Phantom Regiment (73B-30P-44CG-3DM) and it also packs plenty of punch behind its contemporary update of its early 1980s classic, “Spartacus.” Phantom’s early-season edge has come from the performance quality of the demanding book, even though this is currently a fairly “Spartan” version of what this full production will no doubt be come August.

Phantom Regiment – Rockford, IL
DCW On-Line Photo by Ron Walloch

The guard is presently in simple slave tunics and using practice flags and minimal props — with the exception of spears and shields. Even the standard PR white uniform and simple sash may see some additional slashes of color, possibly in the form of blood red accents, by season’s end.

But it’s already apparent that the Regiment has the musical talent to play with the best of them, making the corps practically a lock for another top-six finish. Just how this show evolves and sharpens in execution, particularly visually, will determine whether it will also contend for the title. Regardless, fans will be captivated by this rather literal interpretation of the Spartacus story featuring slaves, revolt, love and murder, with plenty of dramatic moments, like the passionate Dance of Ecstasy, along the way.

Michael Cesario’s influence is literally all over the Colts (70B-33P-40CG-2DM), during its popular, easy to read and colorful “Night and Day” program. Take a good storyline — like the transformation from night to day in midtown Manhattan — tell it through powerful, approachable melodies and visual interpretation, accent it with color everywhere and you have the Colts. It’s a bit of a “throwback” in terms of pace and complexity, and yet it takes what was the best about shows two decades ago — namely popular music, exposed staging and dramatic choreography — and does it even better.

No corps on this night seemed to be more advanced in its show than the Colts, with the red team already appearing to have all their guard costuming and performance silks in place — from the big sun and moon flags during the big Cole Porter Night and Day fanfare, to the shimmering sun skirts and corresponding flags in the closer. And yet, there’s still room to grow in terms of performance execution, particularly in the percussion section, which is probably benefiting right now from the corps’ big ensemble sound and the lack of field execution judges. That cleanliness will be the key to continued growth for the Colts, who appear to be positioned well for a finals return.

Like the Colts, the Blue Knights (72B-30P-40CG-2DM) seem very comfortable in their distinct style, which means this year’s “Knight Reign” has plenty of prance-stepping, body-sculpting, hand-painted, dark-sounding intrigue. And yet, while it is unquestionably BK, the program opens with a reference to their northern neighbor during Cloudburst as a circular opening set explodes outward — similar to the Troopers’ trademark sunburst.

The accompanying “wooshing” sounds and body movements are also reminiscent of the Cavaliers’ 1997 “Firebird” opening. The audience hears the “approaching storm” when 14 tubas add distant thunder while the guard, dressed in all-white body suits with hand-painted sky blue accents, disperses outward into the darker field of the corps proper. And the sky turns to BK’s dark color when the full brass hits its first impact, accented in the guard’s hand-painted darker silks.

The cloud formations over the western skies appear to be the connection for the program, which changes mood like the unpredictable weather and is a bit distant like past Blue Knight programs — at least early. But since this was the corps’ opening night, give it time for those clouds to coalesce into something powerful by season’s end. It certainly appears like the corps is solid in all areas and capable of holding its eighth-place position from a year ago.

The biggest change from a year ago could be in the Madison Scouts (68B-32P-25CG-2DM), particularly in their new nattily clad, olive-colored jackets with accompanying white dress shirts and red ties, black vertically textured pants and shoes, and topped off with the familiar white Aussie hat and red hat band. The hat is about all that looks the same from last season’s Scouts, although the new uniform resembles a contemporary update to the corps’ look of the mid-1980s — in a new color and more sleek, fashion-conscious jacket cut.

Madison Scouts – Madison, WI
DCW On-Line Photo by Ron Walloch

And yet, while the look is new, there are many of the same Scouts in those uniforms as a year ago — just one year older and more mature. That’s most apparent in the Scouts’ battery, which last summer had just one member back on the same drums as the year before. This year, it’s almost the opposite, with all but one returnee back.

“I think that (the corps’ retention) is really crucial,” said Scouts Percussion Caption Head Roger Carter. “Just the fact that we did have that retention level shows the members enjoyed what we did and what they did and they just want to take it to a new level. So we all want to do the same thing and just having that retention shows that we’re doing the right thing.”

The Scouts of the late 1980s eventually made their hallmark driving, in your face, Latin productions and this year’s Scouts return to their Latin roots in “La Noche de la Iguana.” But while the program possesses some of the similar Latin rhythms and power as those past Scouts’ standards, it does take the genre’ to the next level, exploring the entire Latin-American culture through some dance steps and new musical selections that are as difficult to say as they are to play.

For that reason, the Scouts aren’t quite maximizing program projection yet. But since the production is conceived and developed by renowned program coordinator Ramiro Barrera and he hasn’t joined the corps on tour yet, expect it to grow in intensity with summer heat. A key to its future success will be the color guard, which appears smaller in number and less experienced than those in corps the Scouts will need to pass for a trip back to finals.

It may be a battle of in-state rivals for the last World Class finals spot in August, as the Blue Stars (64B-31P-38CG-3DM) also appear poised to make their move after near misses in the first two years back at the World Class level. Of course, the Blue Stars also appear poised to grab the yellow jersey in their Tour de France-based program.

They establish the theme from the very beginning as the guard, dressed in serious biking gear, gets a good “stretch” in the end zone stage left, while the musical ensemble provides the mood music with Camille Saints-Saens’ “Symphony No. 3 in C Minor”.

As the “Every Second Counts” title suggests, the Blue Stars need a good stretch to physically master this program, which moves like none the corps has tried before. The color guard tries to provide the right parts to ride to victory, using bike wheels in an opening move that eventually resolves into a set in that shape for the first big impact.

They later steer silks with handle bars among some of the other equipment built especially for this show. All the while, the corps races through other favorites by French composers like Claude Debussy and Maurice Raval. There are times when you can practically hear the clock ticking. And it is a race against time now for the Blue Stars — now clad in an exposed white pants and shoes — to clean and visually execute this show by the tour’s final stage. The bike racing program appears to provide them the proper vehicle to get to Saturday night in August.

The Colt Cadets (25B-30P-20CG-2DM) not only look taller and more mature by adding the shakos previously worn by their “big brothers”, they play and move that way, too, in “New American Signatures”. While the corps still shows its relative youth and inexperience at times, it possesses a more mature sound and field presence with a program that appears to be in mid-season form when compared to previous years. And it’s managed to do that despite having its rehearsal schedule severely hampered by the weather Iowa’s experienced this spring, forcing four members to pull out from the tour according to Colts Executive Director Greg Orwoll.

Colt Cadets – Dubuque, IA
DCW On-Line Photo by Ron Walloch

Yet that hasn’t slowed down the little Colts from putting out a bigger sound and more advanced visual product while staying true to its roots of playing rock classics — in this case, selections by Paul Simon and Kansas with the word “America” in the title. With the number of Open Class corps eroding, look for the Colt Cadets to become a more serious player this year with their continued “growth”.

There’s no question that Minnesota Brass (38B-33P-24CG-2DM) will continue to be players in the Drum Corps Associates Open Class ranks — just where remains the question. Their program “Obsessions” will be popular, drawing the first big ovation tonight for their performance of such favorites as “Nutville”, Sting’s “Wrapped Around Your Finger” and Chick Corea’s “Night Streets”.

Yet while the corps looks and sounds, at times, like their Blue Devil-like uniforms might suggest, there is much room for growth in this program, particularly in the color guard, which isn’t complete in terms of work or silks. Expect the brass ranks and visual complexity to grow over the course of the season, too. The percussion (11PP-8S-5T-5B-4C), on the other hand, appears to be up to its usual standards and should vie again for the DCA drum title come Labor Day weekend.

The Govenaires (13B-13P-10CG-1DM) proudly tout themselves as “the oldest drum and bugle corps in the world”, so they know what it takes to entertain. And they do that during “Bus Fumes and Dreams” — a production of fun-loving songs like “Wild Party” and “Welcome to My Party”. It’s got the drunken play-acting to boot. And while their fan-friendly, laid back approach is less complex than their in-state rival Chops Inc., it’s more cohesive and approachable at this early stage of the season, meaning it plays better to the box, where all five judges are positioned right now. Yet there is also plenty of room for improvement, particularly within the guard, which seems to have learned its drill in the absence of much equipment work.

Chops (12B-16P-8CG-2DM) appears to have gotten a late start to its 2008 program — so late that the musical numbers were even absent from the printed program. But since the show appears to be built around some pop classics like “Free Ride”, it may not need the program notes. Yet numbers also seemed absent from its percussion section (7PP-2S-3T-4B), which is typically a larger force for the corps. That may not be all bad, since the musical ensemble is a bit more balanced than past years.

Yet the show, as a whole, appears to be very much a “work in progress” and lost a lot of energy by the end. Like their cross-state rivals, the color guard is also missing a lot of its equipment work, although it had a nice moment with its opening tie-dyed flags. Expect Chops to also grow in numbers and performance confidence as the season goes on.

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Posted by on Tuesday, July 1st, 2008. Filed under DCW On-Line.