Top DCI competitors these days regularly leverage their wealth of resources to put out excellent shows. Over the last 10 years, six corps: Blue Devils, Santa Clara Vanguard, Carolina Crown, Bluecoats, Cadets, and Cavaliers have been at or near the top of the rankings, with Boston making a dramatic surge of late. They all have strong organizations and are teeming with talent in their design teams, instructional staffs, and performers. And, most of the time, the shows they put on the field ‘hit a home run’. There are also instances where, despite all that talent, there have been ‘swings and misses’. This article highlights the ‘hits’ and some of the ‘misses’ of recent DCI shows. Your views may differ. These are merely my views having seen each of these performances numerous times, through both visual media and in person.
The Blue Devils always put out a well-designed show but two recent ones stand above the rest: ‘Felliniesque’ (2014) and ‘Metamorph’ (2017)’. The Fellini show resembled a ‘behind the scenes’ view of a movie production, and Metamorph, celebrating their 50th anniversary, traced their history and used ‘flashbacks’ very effectively. Although BD introduces innovative elements every year, those two shows sort of broke the mold. ‘Felliniesque’ was arguably the first show to almost demand close ups of the ‘cast members’ on the field to get the full impact of the many concepts. The way they meshed musical and visual treats to tell the story was clever and engaging. Metamorph displayed insanely talented high brass and color guard with tremendous melodic and visual content in one of the most entertaining BD shows ever. Even the significant ‘parking and playing’, which I thought was cringe worthy, could not detract from the overall delivery. Both of these shows were ‘home runs’ and, appropriately, they both scored top honors.
Santa Clara dazzled us with ‘Babylon’ in 2018 – an impressively creative endeavor that was both technically marvelous and a crowd favorite. It got SCV back on top after a long Championship drought with a superbly conceived show that featured the innovative use of an array of nested metal stages and an elegantly written score. Large props can often distract visually, but through ingenious planning they integrated the multi sized stages in a way that augmented and enhanced the production. Three other recent SCV shows were also big ‘hits’. ‘Ballet for Martha’ (2009) delivered the pinnacle drum corps representation of ‘Appalachian Spring’ with exquisite coordination. ‘Les Miserables’ (2013) condensed the very best of that 3 hour musical into a drum corps masterpiece, capturing both the essence and emotion as was evident in the strong crowd response. ‘Ouroborus’ (2017), although rather obtuse musically, took chances with props, the use of a mini-ensemble, and staging in a runner up production that might have won any other year (losing only to the aforementioned Metamorph).
Crown’s best recent shows have included their only DCI winner (‘E=Mc2’ in 2013), and three others of note. ‘Out of This World’ (2014) placed 5th, utilizing an 80 person high brass feature with echo effects and three-dimensional visuals that I believe were undervalued from a judging standpoint. They introduced so much difficulty in their brass book that it seemed they outstripped the scoresheets ability to reward it. ‘Inferno’ (2015) went from dark and ominous (‘Gates of Hell’, ‘Dis Irae’) to the triumphant ‘Ode to Joy’ (from Beethoven’s Symphony #9). ‘Relentless’ (2016) depicted a ‘spaghetti Western’ saga with a compelling story line that was both easily accessible and enormously entertaining at a time when many shows fail to connect on both counts. I could have included 2017’s ‘It Is’ here except excessive vocals in the back half subordinated their top brass line. That was more like a ‘single’, not a ‘home run’.
The Bluecoats have been part of the top group for over a decade, and their spectacular ‘Down Side Up’ (2016) Championship show introduced innovations (no headgear, enormous movable props, stunning ‘costuming’, amplification) and created a ripple effect across the activity. ‘Tilt’ (2014) gave us a hint of what would arrive later, with huge triangular props that were well utilized and musical effects that caught many of us off guard. ‘Session 44’ (2018) delivered another crowd pleasing repertoire and massive mobile props integrated into a multifaceted drill design. In 2019, ‘The Bluecoats’ (2nd place) delivered a mosaic of music from the Beatles, incorporating 19 of their best songs into a brilliantly crafted show. This enormously popular production adds to a string of recent successes from this perennial contender.
The Cavaliers have put themselves solidly among the top corps lately with bold programs and no holding back. ‘On Madness and Creativity’ (2018) was true to its title, interweaving ‘Bolero’ and the corps staple song (‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’) in an intricate and cacophonous unmasking of the human mind. In my opinion, however, I consider their best show concepts to be back in 2011 (‘XtraordinarY’), and 2014 (‘Immortal’). The visual elements of ‘XtraordinarY’, including upside down performers and stunning maneuvers, were eye popping. ‘Immortal’ brought acrobatic keyboard players into focus and a clever and much underappreciated drill book. Using melodies from Steven Melillo’s ‘A Walk on the Water’ as bookends, they took chances and sold the theme well. Both ‘XtraordinarY’ and ‘Immortal’ were slightly ahead of the crowd and had superior composition. Even with brass performance levels a shade below the top corps, the designs of these shows had them squarely in the top 6.
The Cadets always seem to be near the top and they have never stopped pushing the envelope. ‘Angels and Demons’ (2011), earned them their last championship with the use of dramatically contrasting uniforms to represent the two opposing factions. The integration/segregation aspects of that show were marvelous as was the musical score. Even more audacious was ’12.25’ (2012) consisting exclusively of Christmas music. When I first heard of this show concept I was highly skeptical. How would Christmas music sell in a drum corps show in the middle of the summer? I dismissed them as a serious contender that year based on that skepticism. I was totally wrong. ’12.25’ was a smashing success and featured possibly the best ending in the history of the Cadets – and that is saying something because the Cadets strong suit has always been their closers. Although they placed 4th it was one of the most enjoyable productions that year.
Boston has thrust themselves into the top tier recently with two excellent shows. ‘Wicked Games’ (2017) jumped them from 12th to 6th and was not only one of the more entertaining performances of that year, it also showed off improvements in musicianship and guard that were seemingly wasted in their three previous shows. They followed that up with a similar formula in ‘S. O. S.’ (2018), an immensely relatable design that showcased the best attributes of every section. Performance levels across the board progressed within striking range of the top corps with excellent writing and staging. Right now, the trajectory for Boston appears very promising.
Of course, no one bats a thousand and every corps – even the best – has an off year occasionally. For example, the Blue Devils’ 2005 ‘Dance Derby of the Century’ fell flat for many because of the annoying narration and seemingly disjointed design (remember ‘Yowza Yowza’? How could you forget?). It earned them their lowest placement (4th) in 15 years. Santa Clara had an uncharacteristically odd program in 2011 with ‘The Devil’s Staircase’ which relegated them to 6th place. The Cavaliers struck out in 2012 with ’15 Minutes of Fame’ (8th place), the only time since 1984 they have scored below 90. The Cadets’ ‘An American Portrait’ (2014) earned them 3rd place, but the incessant narration (most of us prefer drum corps shows that are NOT history lessons) made this one of their least enjoyable shows in recent memory.
Boston missed spectacularly three years in a row (2014 – 2016) with ‘Animal Farm’, ‘Conquest’, and ‘Quixotic’. I won’t even comment on the myriad failures of ‘Animal Farm’ (2014), possibly the worst conceived show in Crusaders’ history. A Boston Crusaders’ show titled ‘Conquest’ (2015) had many expecting a full exploitation of that ‘Captain from Castile’ theme. Instead, they used a sophisticated approach that essentially neutered it. What a mistake! Wouldn’t it have been better to END the show with one of the many great renditions (they played it 20 times from 1969 to 1998) from the past in their 75th anniversary? I suspect Ed Denon might have rolled over in his grave. And in my view they completely whiffed when they failed to capitalize on the intrinsic power of ‘The Impossible Dream’ in ‘Quixotic’ (2016) with an arrangement that strangely muted its impact. (Why would you base your show on Man of La Mancha without milking ‘The Impossible Dream’ for a rousing ending?) Many people thought they ‘struck out’ with that treatment.
Outside the top 12, the Troopers completely missed an opportunity in 2018. Their ‘The New Road West’ show initially listed ‘Climb Every Mountain’ from The Sound of Music as their closer. Maybe they thought that was too trite or not sophisticated enough for today’s DCI, because when they hit the field they used an original composition to end their show. And it fell flat. They went from a mountain to a mole hill and the result was 17th place, more than 5 points out of the Finals. In my view, they might have brought the house down with ‘Climb Every Mountain’ and could have boosted their lagging GE scores. (And those cheap looking imitations of the original Troopers uniforms with SILVER buttons!?! – another mistake!)
Madison seems to have lost its way recently with two very weak presentations. ‘Last Man Standing’ (2017) somehow earned them 12th place in Finals even though the show was low on melody, harmony, difficulty, and was almost as audibly grating as their ‘costumes’ . I dare you to listen to the brass book and find any sixteenth notes (are they not compulsory today?). They followed that up with ‘Heart and Soul’ (2018), another dramatic departure from their heritage that landed them in 16th place. With narration that sought to teach us the mechanics of the human heart (really?) and mediocre show design, this was a disservice to the talent of the performers and an embarrassment for the organization. We can only hope that Madison will right their ship in the future with productions more appropriate for a corps with such a rich history.
Here are a few of my favorite underrated (some fell outside the top 12) shows of the past decade:
The Troopers 2015 ‘Wild Horses’ production (14th) did not contain much difficulty, but it had a clean crisp drill and a musical book tailored for the skills of the performers. It also represented their western motif extremely well. If that show had made top 12 it would not have looked out of place. Right below the Troopers that year, the Colts’ ‘…and then a shot rang out – A Johnny Staccato Murder Mystery’ (15th) – was very entertaining with a ton of audience appeal. That was the type of show that the Velvet Knights or Bridgemen might have produced. Unfortunately, performance levels kept them out of finals. Personally, I would have loved to see a sequel, ‘Johnny Staccato – part 2’, but it is rare that we see a competitively successful show that relies on humor.
For example, Academy broke into the top 12 in 2016 with ‘Drum Corpse Bride’, containing jocular elements and a theme that was very effective. They followed that up with ‘By a Hare’ (2017), based on the Looney Tunes Bugs Bunny cartoons. That show was loaded with tongue in cheek humor and whimsy, great writing, and was well performed. But somehow the comedic translation to the audience fell just short and they placed 14th. I guess you could say that show missed ‘by a hair’. While many of us would like to see a Velvet Knights-type ‘fun’ show, it is clear that corps tend to shy away because offering a show that is entertaining and scores well with comedy is so difficult.
The Blue Knights presented shows from 2013 to 2019 that were connected and highly cerebral. Starting with ‘NoBeginningNoEnd’ (2013) and culminating with ‘I Remember Everything’ (2019), each of these shows offered profound philosophical themes that required research to comprehend. The powerful concepts they presented, for those taking the initiative to delve into them, were deep and thought provoking. Despite perennially high performance levels, the obtuse nature of these shows has made it difficult for the average fan to fully appreciate. That could be among the reasons the corps has only cracked the top 6 once over that span.
One of the best aspects of the activity today is the wide variety of productions and creativity, often resulting in higher levels of entertainment. In an era where innovation gets rewarded when it works (‘Tilt’,‘Down Side Up’, ‘Felliniesque’, ’12.25’, ‘Babylon’) there is also the huge risk that it won’t (‘Animal Farm’, ‘The Devil’s Staircase’). In general, we are treated to more ‘good’ show design than ‘bad’, more ‘hits’ than ‘misses’. And lately, we are seeing more emphasis on melody and crowd appeal. Although the sophistication of many shows risks tamping down crowd appeal, the top organizations quite often ‘thread the needle’ and keep audiences engaged.
Performance levels are generally excellent and although there are some distracting elements emerging in the activity (excessive amplification, inappropriate use of vocals, departure from traditional uniforms, etc.), there are more positive developments than negative. Let’s hope more corps can avoid ‘misses’ in the future. And let’s hope more corps can deliver show designs across the board that are fully worthy of the talent, history, and strength of their organizations.