Finally, my first live showing of Bluecoats, PR, and Troop in 2015! I will give this review my best shot.
I liked or appreciated something about every performance.
Racine Scouts- I think the show idea is good. They try to convey the story of Van Gogh when he was insane, painting from his wild imagination. The production contains a "Van Gogh" figure represented by a guard member, and a painting easel that is often a visual focus. I believe the painting is "Starry Night", though it is hard to tell in that when it is finally revealed at the end of the performance, it is the size of a children's book. That is a silly design flaw if you ask me. Really? Make it 8 times bigger. I can't imagine you cannot find even free resources to make it so. The percussion section is full and they are extremely aggressive in their approach, but also have moments of quiet, tasteful parts that are pretty cool to listen to. The guard is okay, having work completed in about half the show. The paintbrush props for the guard are clever, but need to be brighter. The vocalist in the ballad did a nice job. I will not belabor the issue that there are only four brass in that those kids probably feel extremely vulnerable already. I thought that when I could hear them, they did some decent things, including a ballad moment on the front sideline. For our oldest corps still in existence, I tried to fully appreciate their efforts tonight and hope they have a fun summer.
Colt Cadets- This show was a clear step up from Racine. Their show theme is "Fire and Ice". It seems interesting to me that the things I would have guessed were most easily put together (the idea of fire with aggressive music, fire imagery, a fiery voice over, etc. would be easier than a transparently scored ballad, and super exposed visual and musical ideas) though I thought they pulled the "Ice" stuff off better than the "fire" stuff. They have fire influenced flag designs that work well. In the Ice portion, the brass and then percussion take off their jackets to reveal a blue and white top that supports the Ice theme. They have somewhat of an open class air about them that I thought speaks well for the design team and instructional staff. They of course have a lot to clean up in that they were pretty dirty. I did enjoy them, though.
SOA- The show starts with a fine soloist and then bam, we are hit with some brass impact and a short loud intro. You can hear the Tara's theme in the intro and at other times, though it is pretty altered. I did not feel an old school Spirit connection to it though. The brass have a big sound and at times the pitch locked in pretty well. As the program persisted, pitch seemed a real struggle. There were some interesting electronic fire sound effects and the guard is wearing what looks to be a theme-supported fire-type design on a dark unitard-like base. I thought the drum writing was cool at times, but those times seemed drum-centric and not really supportive or idiomatic to the show theme. They also had some pretty big snare blow-ups and a tenor moment that seemed like someone forgot the change. They hit you with sound and not much else in way of variety of effect. They do have a fantastic soloist that plays very musically. There was some play-acting that I think was intended to display oppression or maybe being caught by a fire, but it was not sold well tonight. The color guard is still underdeveloped and is not too often integrated into the drill. They did have a few long guard phrases that were pretty clean. It seems to me the designers need to make a lot of changes in order to keep up with everyone else's modern day shows. The production ended in a major key and was much more upbeat than the rest of the show, but I am not sure what caused that. I had an hour-long car ride to think about my review and had the hardest time formulating what I would say about Spirit. It is like they are a rough diamond that you are looking at through six feet of dirty glass. It seems like parts and pieces are there somewhere, it just doesn’t all connect or communicate an overall idea or aesthetic. I was hoping that what previous viewers were saying would have proven different by the show last night, but it does seem another poorly designed offering. Still time for changes, but not too much.
Colts- Another narration show, which is fine, but if you are going to claim that niche (which is original), do it in such a way that everyone really likes it, really understands it, is pulled in by it, and remembers it. I cannot say that is yet happening to any measurable degree. I wanted to get my negatives out of the way first- All that said, I do like the show. The brass have some good punch and like most, still have some balance issues and cracked pitches to clean up here and there. The guard is all in various costumes to fit the 1940s noir Radio Show theme. They were quite good and extremely well integrated into the visual package. There is a tall stage on the right side of the pit where actors occasionally go to play-act certain scenes- that all needs much more development. The radio announcers/personalities are in front of the stage. I almost think they should be on the stage the entire time, as that would help with visual focus- and, if actors come up there from time to time, we can get that they are all in the studio together. I guess I want to see what the show announcement described as the audience seeing behind the scenes of making a murder mystery radio show. The drums are fine and will clean up. The guard will clean up as well. The drill is super well done and will help them stay above several groups. Feet are coming along really nicely. If the right changes are made (a parent in the seat next to me said they have made changes the last few days. Some were in the show, some not yet), this could be the dark horse corps come August. They just have to be the right changes. I think the instructional staff will get them where they need to be, the designers just need to really make the narration and show so well intergraded and complementary that as I said before, we are pulled in immediately and are on the edge of our seats following along with great anticipation for what is coming next. A killer ending (pun intended) story-wise and drum-corps-doing-drum corps-wise could put it over the top in regards to jumping a place or three.
Troopers- They come on the field and just seem to carry themselves in a way that proudly says Troopers. I am not sure exactly what that is or how it is accomplished, but it is palpable. All the talk about comparisons to "Triple Crown" are perhaps justified, but I found myself not really making or even thinking about those comparisons. The guard does take on the role of horses and the horn line, the trainers. White fences are used to create different stages, looks, and toward the end, one big horse corral. The brass sound spectacular most of the show. Better than Spirit or Colts. The drum line is fine, and had a few really crystal clear moments in the show that may be a sign of some good cleaning starting to happen. The first half is a bit more traditional Troopers. The ballad is good, but seems to need some tweaking for the effect to come across more powerfully. The closer is the most non-Troopers and I really like it. They are not performing it as well as the rest of the show, but I imagine it has been on the field the least amount of time. The guard is better than last year. I wish at least one flag was a bit more colorful, impactful. At the end, all the horses are pushed into a open corral-like stage using the fences on the right side of the field. As the corps proper moves toward them, the horses “escape” and run off the field. I think it pretty effective considering the show is called “Wild Horses”, but it seems that just before that moment, we need a bigger wow. I really enjoyed them and felt they placed where they should tonight, though Colts maybe start invading their scoring space really soon.
Phantom- Like Troppers, there is a persona that the corps carries as they come on the field, but it isn’t the same aura that they have had for decades, and even three or four years ago. As of the past few years, they always seem to look dumpy/apologetic to me. Part of it is how they wear their plume. Letting it sag so much in the middle that it bounces and flails around when they march. It drives me crazy. Coats used to do that too. Part of it seems to be the body training in that while they march fine, their body stuff looks stiff, un-natural, forced, not ergonomic. The show is a bit old school, but I really enjoyed it. A lot of that is because of the guard and how much they add to the theme and how well they carry themeselves as you think Audrey Hepburn would. I am able to dispel disbelief in that of course Audrey would not march around a field throwing sixes or jazz run at 180 beats a minute. Somehow through the drum corps guard requisites, they look elegant and mature, calm and in control. The costume and flags, the arm poofs and skirt change for the ballad are so well conceived. While praising the guard, I cannot short change the brass that sound just wonderful. Phantom-rich and broad. Their book seems a little thin compare to others, but the book is pretty true to the originals and not full of technique for technique’s sake. Not my favorite arrangement of "Claire de Lune" however. It came across as stale. The drums are good as well. The snare tuning seemed a bit boxy to me and I don’t think the heads spoke well in that stadium. The drill is big as usual, but I liked it more than the past few years. The opening set is stunning and the other concrete images that appear add to the programmatic intent. The ending needs to be changed. That is probably planned. It will be interesting to see where the judges place them in that their show is very different than everyone else’s. I do think they could modernize and still be their typical big orchestral selves. It seems though that Cadets and Crown have taken on that role, at least this year.
Bluecoats- My, my, my. What was that? Its like the first time you see the B-2 Stealth Bomber. Its flies by at break neck speed, looks nothing like anything you have ever seen before, and leaves you slack-jawed and asking “What the hell was that? It was awesome!” This is a game changer. Some have described BD as that the past several years- not BDs moniker any longer. They brass, drum, and guard amazingly well. The guard costumes of various swirled colors that is then used as the palate for all the flag designs works really well against the corps proper uniform. The drum line and brass are again smokin’, both candidates for top honors, albeit in company with several other strong candidates. The rolling silver human-sized hamster cages are cool and used really well for all kinds of purposes, not just staging. The talk of the town is of course the use of electronics. Talk about spending considerable time thinking all of this out. Speakers in front and four across the field are used in so many ways:
1. Sounds to add to the brass/percussion orchestration for various colors. 2. Electronic effects that are on top of the orchestration. 3. Side to side effects. 4. Doppler effects. 5. Live music played by small ensembles that are recorded live and then looped back through the speakers (WHAT?!) 6. Random short sound effects that jump from speaker to speaker. There is so much to take in at one time. I cannot wait to see it again. Head and shoulders above the other groups in all areas. They have some transitions to work out, especially getting soloists, small ensembles out and back in to the drill. Regardless of any current flaws, a B-2-Bomber-Wow! if there ever has been one in DCI.
With so many different approaches to effect, a very healthy thing for the activity in my view, I wanted to spend some time doing research as to how DCI judges deal with the differences. How do they compare apples to oranges, as they say. Though I did not find much about the actua judging, I did find myself thinking about how design should use the sheets in the winter when constructing the shows. It seems some staffs hardly consider many of the things indicated as the foundation/repertoire for creating effect.
I looked up the DCI GE sheets this morning. I was surprised that there are so few words on the left side of the sheet, the repertoire side. There are only five bullet points, fifteen words total, and three of those words are two ands and one of. The third bullet point is “Programmatic Interpretation” and the fifth is “Creativity, Originality, and Artistry”. These two bullet points seem to me as the most critical in the winter when design teams are initially creating the show. Not that it is a checklist sort of planning, but a constant reminder that with so few words on the sheet (which I think makes a lot of sense- clear, to the point, not check-listy), you need to constantly ask if you are planning for these elements in your effect design. How often? At what points over the timeline of the show?
The fourth bullet point, “Variety of Effects”, seems the next thing to consider, though hardly separated from point three and five- all important things to consider as the show design is coming together.
Then point two, “Audio and Visual Coordination”, seems a logical next step in making the effects happen with both audio and visual elements.
Finally, bullet point one, “Audience Engagement”. Through the other four bullet points, this is of course your ultimate goal. I think it important to consider the audience as the old and young, seasoned and new fan, first time viewers and the judges. A strictly old school show is a risk. A overtly heady show with no understanding to anyone but the design team is also a risk. How do you engage everyone while being creative, artistic, original, allowing for your chosen programmatic theme to be followed?
With last night’s show, it seems that some staffs considered all of this carefully and worked to have their repertoire effect you every second of the show. Every second. Others seem to have effects that come around less often and in some cases, much less frequently, sometimes using the tried and true, the predictable and unoriginal. While everyone has some of those in their show, and they should ( loud is good, unison tosses and catches are good, fast clean rolls are good), some teams seem to really work to up the frequency of effects or constant engagement. I think you can stick to your niche and do all of these things. Winter planning seems so critical. The days of writing three tunes, handing the brass book to the drum guy, then handing all that to the drill writer, then handing all of that to the guard person are clearly over.