The Size and Scope Would Leave Broadway in Awe

Western Corps Connection userpic=drumcorpsMost people know that I’m into Live Theatre, and love to write about it. Truth be told, I love live performance of any variety. Last night, instead of being at the closing of the 2015 Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB), we were out in Riverside in 90+°F and humidity watching a form of theatricality that, especially considering its size, stamina, and scope, would likely leave any Broadway performer in awe. Where were we? We were at the Western Corps Connection (FB) in Riverside, watching a drum corps competition.

Drum Corps (you’re probably saying to yourself)? That’s just a fancy half-time show. There you would be wrong. Here’s why Drum Corps would put Broadway in awe (and has, if you remember Blast on Broadway (FB)). Let’s take a single World Class corps. It consists of roughly 150 young adult performers (16-21) plus additional staff. These performers are roughly divided into four groups: Marching Brass (valve-based horns), Marching Percussion (various types of drums), Guard members (dancers who manipulate a variety of props including rifles and sabres), and a small number of pit personnel (xylophones, large drums, and now it seems, keyboards) and drum majors (conductors). They must give a 15 minute performance to music of their own choice; the performance must be sufficient to cover an entire football field. They will be judged on this performance based on the quality of their music, their precision, their visual effects, and the general reaction of the audience. Music has ranged from Broadway standards (including Sondheim) to Jazz to Orchestral to … you name it. Now, imagine that they also must load all their equipment onto the field and connect it up before each show, and remove it afterwards. Now put them in competition over the summer, marching and dancing almost every day under the summer sun, with 25 to 40 other such similar groups (our show had 7), and have them judged as to who is the best.

That’s drum corps. That’s why I said size, stamina, and scope is much greater than any single Broadway show, and might even be greater than a Broadway season (given the compressed timeframe). Broadway performers also get to go home; they don’t sleep in buses or in school gymnasiums. These performers have a grueling job. If you are in the Live Theatre industry, and see someone with Drum Corps experience on their resume, know you are getting a tested musician or a tested dancer, one who knows and loves hard work and precise results.

Drum Corps, like Broadway and the rest of the theatre world, has gotten more and more… well… more and more over the years. My wife, when young, marched in a youth band that thought it was a corps. She tells me of the days when the colors (US and state flags) had to be on the field at all times, when there were strict requirements on instruments, flags, and performances. Today things have changed greatly: there is amplification of the pit, keyboards, electronic sound effects, the occasional non-valve horn, and sound mixer boards. We even had an electric guitar and an electric bass from an Open Class corps! Some things haven’t: the best corps are not just loud, they are LOUD, if not LOUD! Corps have triggered noise complaints from residents.

Don’t take my word. Here’s a link to a performance of this year’s top Open Class corps from the 2014 show that will show you:

You can find more videos on YouTube. Drum Corps International (DCI) (FB) has a number of free videos posted on their site.

Last night’s show featured 6 “Open Class” corps and 7 “World Class” corps. World Class corps have made the DCI top 25; they march with a full complement of performers. Open Class corps are smaller. They may be feeders to larger corps (both Blue Devils (FB) and the Santa Clara Vanguard (FB) have cadet corps to train the young, although they weren’t at our show); they may be corps that are rebuilding after a bad year or a large age-out (you have to leave when you are older than 21); or they may be corps that do not have sufficient membership (we saw some former World Class corps in Open Class with less than 10 in the guard). June and early July shows may not yet be complete — the finals are in early August.

Here is my assessment of the corps we saw last night, in the order of performance:

Open Class Corps

Golden Empire (FB) – Bakersfield. This is the second year they have fielded a corps, and they are amazing for a new group. Their show this year, “The Color of Crime”, seemed to be about a jewel heist. It consisted of 5 scenes: (1) “Breaking In” (The Area is Secure / Pinch of a Finger, by Christophe Beck”; (2) “Heist & Escape” (Perfect Day for a Murder by Christophe Beck; (3) “Scot-Free Shopping Spree” (Feeling Good, by Anthony Newley); (4) “Pink Cloud Paradise” (Dreamsville, by Henry Mancini); and (5) “Clues to Confrontation” (The Damburger Incident, Dragalong Dreyfus, Chasing Yuri, and Pink Panther Theme by Christophe Beck, Henry Mancini). I felt the story was good, but they needed to work on their precision. They had a keyboard and used amplification. They had a nice sound, but they needed to be much louder to provide the “oopmh” that was required. They were unable to fill the entire field.

Incognito (FB) – Garden Grove. This corps started in 2005, expanded in 2007, and fielded a corps for the first time in 2008, and then took a number of years off, returning last year. So they are rebuilding. Their program, “Planet Incognito”, had 3 movements: World of Incognitians by their director, Tony T Nguyen; The Planets: Mars by Gustav Holst, and The Planets: Jupiter by Gustav Holst. This was a small corps, only marching 8 in the guard and about 6 horns. Their music was slow, and it was clear their show was incomplete. They did not use amplification. They were notable for marching a trombone, which you never see.

Impulse (FB) – Buena Park. Impulse was formed in 1999, and seemed to be the inheritor of the mantle of the Velvet Knights (FB), one of the most crowd pleasing corps ever, at least in terms of fun. This year’s show was called “Interpolation”, and they didn’t give more details. The corps was a shadow of what it used to be, with a very small 5 member guard. They were OK on volume, but not as much “in your face” as I remembered them. They tried to fill the field.

Watchmen (FB) – Riverside. Watchmen formed in 2013, and marched an Open Class corps for the first time in 2014. Their repertoire, “Influenced”, was original music from staff members Richie Sabastian, Alex Mendoza, and Harry Hutchins. This was another small corps, with only 7 in the guard. They used amplification and had two keyboards, plus vocal sound effects. Their guard needed to up their precision. They also needed more volume, but they were missing their low end horns.

Gold (FB) – San Diego.  Gold started in 2005, and competed outside of California first in 2011, and has been an open class finalist every year since 2012. They are the corps in the video I embedded above. Their repertoire this year, called “Pop Star”, consisted of the music Toxic by Cathy Dennis, Bloodshy, and Avant. Their field setup was unique — they put the pit on the field about 70% back, with a raised drum set, and electric guitar, and an electric base. They then had a big pink tarp the covered the wiring and provided good visual effect. They marched a full complement of horns, and had very sexy guard outfits. They had nice music and filled the field well. They got organized chaos right. All in all, a very good show.

Open Class Conclusions

🎺🎶🎺🎶 ⇒ Overall, I liked the programs of Gold and Golden Empire the best. They had accessible music, great sound, and great visual effect.  The other corps were clearly marching at a disadvantage with incomplete complements.

World Class Corps

These corps all marched full complements.

Mandarins (FB) – Sacramento. Mandarins used to be an all Asian corps, and go back to 1963. Their repertoire, “Resurrection”, featured four movements: The AwakeningWarriorDynasty of the Emperor, and Forever in Stone, all by Key Poulan (music director), Sean Womack (percussion arranger), and Mark Hunter (percussion arranger). This is what a corps should sound and look like: they had an entertaining and energetic show. They were notable because at one point, most of the guard started playing horns — you don’t see that too often. They had great general effect, and when they took the field, they took the field. I also noticed that their faces were particularly fierce — acting with the music, instead of the constant smile.

Pacific Crest (FB) – Diamond Bar. Pacific Crest is a newer local corps, having stared in 1993. They are the only world class corps left in Southern Californnia. Their repertoire, called “The Catalyst”, consisted of four movements: Scythian Suite Op 20 (Sergei Prokofiev); Liberi Fatali from Final Fantasy VIII (Nobuo Uematsu); Enjoy the Silence (Martin Gore), and Angels in the Architecture (Frank Ticheli). Their music was not that accessible and their show was unfinished, at least based on this weird open metal structure they rolled on the field and kept moving, but did nothing with. They had odd sound effects, but good percussion. Not that crazy about this show.

The Academy (FB) – Tempe AZ. Academy stared in 2001, becoming a corps in 2004, joining World Class in 2007. They had a very accessible show, “Step In Time”, that used music from Mary Poppins (stage): (I) Introduction (Chim Chim Cher-ee; A Shooting Star); (II) Practically Perfect (A Spoonful of Sugar; Practically Perfect; Galop (from Masquerade Suite)); (III) Step in Time; (IV) Feed the Birds; and (V) Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. The guard uniforms were beautiful, and they had very nice props. They provided good field coverage and wonderful effects. They were notable for having the pit use tap shoes on hands tapping on a board to provide tap percussion. They also used drum brushes to provide a great auditory effect on Feed the Birds. They had the right sound, and were the first corps to get a standing ovation.

Blue Knights (FB) – Denver CO. A musical group founded in 1958 by former vaudeville comedians and musicians Faye and Fred Taylor, they hit the corps scene in 1991. Their repertorie “Because…” featured 5 movments: Because (Lennon, McCartney); Rush (Jay Bocook, Kevin Shah, Mike Jackson — all BK staff); Apres Moi (Regina Spektor); I’m Alive (Adam Watts), and Fly to Paradise (Eric Whitacre). Their uniforms were beautiful: white and light blue for the musicians, orange and light blue for the guard. They had some wonderful dance moves, but the music was not accessible. They also had this odd ghostly echo effect that was more distracting than anything else.

Phantom Regiment (FB) – Rockford IL. Founded in 1956, they have been finalists every year since 1974. Kudos to them for being the only corps east of the Mississippi to come to California. They had a very accessible repertoire “City of Light”: I Love Paris (Porter), Horoscope (Constant Lambert), Clair de Lune(Dubussy), An American in Paris (Gershwin), and Symphony No. 3 (Camille Saint-Saens). They filled the field and had a nice loud sound, but their precision was a bit off and their show just didn’t grab me.

Santa Clara Vanguard (FB) – Santa Clara. Founded in 1967, this is one of the top corps in DCI. Their program, “The Spark of Invention”, featured Invention in A Minor (Bach), Virus Attack (Amin Bhatia), Pure Imagination (Bricusse, Newley), and Piano Concerto (Corigliano). They were LOUD, but Vanguard is always loud. They had multiple costume changes on the field, and had these odd Van DeGraff generator type props. They also had an odd echo effect created by sound board delays — likely intentional, but I didn’t like it.

Blue Devils (FB) – Concord. The other major California corps, they were founded in 1970. They have won nationals 16 times, most recently in 2015 (yes, that’s what the program says — Blue Devils is that cocky and sure of themselves). They have never been lower than 4th in the last 20 years. Their program, “Ink”, dealt with fairy tales: Dark Forest (Dave Glyde), Sweeney Todd (Sondheim); The Giant Attack (Sondheim); The Mad Hatters Tea Party (Gordon Goodwin); I Like You (GOT7); Children Will Listen (Sondheim); Last Midnight (Sondheim). This was Blue Devils doing it right — a very accessible program, wonderful dance, wonderful story, wonderful and LOUD music. My only quibble is with the use of The Ballad of Sweeney Todd to accompany fairy tales — Snow White, in particular. They had the precision, and they knew it.

World Class Conclusions

🎺🎶🎺🎶 ⇒ Overall, my favorites were Blue Devils, The Academy, and the Mandarins, in that order. For me, as a theatre person and not a musician, their shows touched me the best. I was surprised at Blue Devils — often they do an inaccessible Jazz show. They did it right this time.


Position Corps Score
Open Class Division
1 Gold 50.600
2 Golden Empire 50.150
3 Watchmen 44.550
4 Impulse 43.450
5 Incognito 36.100
World Class Division
1 Blue Devils 79.850
2 Santa Clara Vanguard 78.650
3 Phantom Regiment 72.900
4 Blue Knights 72.400
5 The Academy 65.950
6 Pacific Crest 64.900
7 Mandarins 63.050

The scores for last night’s performance are shown to the right. Scoring is on a 100 point scale, with 40 for General Effect (20 each from two judges, one a visual expert, one a music expert); 30 for Visual (20 points each for Visual Analysis, Visual Proficiency, and Color Guard, summed and divided by two), and 30 for Music (20 points each for Music Analysis, Music Brass, and Music Percussion, summed and divided by two). Here are my thoughts on the scores.

In the Open Class, I think they got it right. Gold had the best show, and Golden Empires was far above the incomplete shows of the others.

In World Class, I really think that Mandarins should have been higher; ditto for Academy. They must have lost points with the judges on precision somewhere that I missed. Blue Devils did deserve to win.

A few technical notes: The RCC Band (FB) and Riverside Community College (FB) need to provide more food trucks and more drink options, especially on hot days. People were not able to cycle through the food lines in the 40 minute intermission. That indicates you need more servers and more options. It would also be useful for RCC or DCI to make clear what can and cannot be brought into the stadium. Lastly, next time I must bring stadium chairs; sitting for four hours without a seat back is hard.

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I subscribe at three theatres:  REP East (FB), The Colony Theatre (FB), and Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows: July is a month of double-headers, begining with “Murder for Two” at the Geffen Playhouse (FB) on July 3rd, and “Matilda” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) on July 4th. The next weekend is another double: On Friday night, July 10th, we’re seeing Colin Mitchell‘s show Madness, Murder Mayhem: Three Classic Grand Guignol Plays Reimagined at Zombie Joes Underground Theatre (FB); Saturday July 11th brings “Jesus Christ Superstar” at REP East (FB). The following weekend is another double header: “The History Boys” at the Stella Adler Theatre (FB) on Saturday (Goldstar), and “Green Grow The Lilacs” at Theatricum Botanicum (FB) on Sunday.  The last weekend of July brings our last double: “Lombardi” at the Lonny Chapman Group Rep (FB) on July 25th, with the annual Operaworks show the next day. August start calming down, with “As You Like It” at Theatricum Botanicum (FB) the first weekend of August, our summer Mus-ique show the second weekend of August, and “The Fabulous Lipitones” at  The Colony Theatre (FB) the third weekend of August. After that we’ll need a vacation … but then again we might squeeze in Evita at the Maui Cultural Center (FB) the last weekend of August. September right now is mostly open, with the only ticketed show being “The Diviners” at REP East (FB) and a hold-the-date for “First Date” at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB). October will bring another Fringe Festival: the NoHo Fringe Festival (FB). October also has the following as ticketed or hold-the-dates: Kelrik Production (FB)’s Urinetown at the Monroe Forum Theatre (Hold for Sat 10/3);  “Mrs. A. Lincoln” at The Colony Theatre (FB) (Ticketed for Sat 10/10); and  “Damn Yankees” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) (Ticketed for Sat 10/17). As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.


One Reply to “The Size and Scope Would Leave Broadway in Awe”

  1. I definitely agree with you on bleachers with no backs. There are two local sporting venues with only bleacher seating. I have visited each only once, because I find that miserable. I will have to look into stadium chairs: I don’t think I had realized they exist until your post!

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