Get Blasted

Nobody dozes off during Blast! Several times during the high-concept marching-band event now playing at the Fair Park Music Hall, the blare of dozens of horns and the pounding of a hundred drums large and small get so loud you can feel your bones vibrating. At top volume, the noise from Blast! might serve to unclog arteries or disintegrate kidney stones.

So it's best just to sit back and let the rhythm do its stuff. It's as corny as Kansas in August and as gooey as gooseberry pie, but it delivers what it promises in the title, a blast of a good time, plus a shot of the feel-goods that'll keep you whistling a happy tune for days afterward.

What Riverdance did for Irish step dancing and Tapdogs did for choreography-prone Aussie construction workers, Blast! does with its purely American art form: the football halftime show. Not the stumblebum kind of halftime you get at the Super Bowl, with lip-synching pop tarts prancing around through woozy pyrotechnics. No, the real kind you find in lit-up stadiums on fall Friday nights across the Midwest, where kids in scratchy jackets and baggy white pants spend too-brief halftimes blowing their hearts out in 4/4 as they double-step between muddy hash marks.

Blast! serves as revenge of the band nerds. This time the whole show belongs to them, up from the orchestra pit and out into the spotlight centerstage, and they seem determined to make the most of every minute.

Here they are nerds no more. Decked out in sleek black and white outfits, shiny hair cropped close to their heads, this troupe of 54 performers features athletic-looking young veterans of the nation's top college drum-and-bugle corps, marching bands and flag-waving outdoor pageants (four are recent grads of the University of North Texas' music department). These kids are world champion multi-taskers. They don't just play the music; they execute complicated, Tharp-like dance steps while they're wailing on their flugelhorns and trombones. They toss their horns in the air, toss themselves in the air, toss flags and sabers and long steel batons up, over and back again and never miss a note.

Then come the drummers, a small army of them, teasing their little snares and whacking their giant basses, with 65 cymbals, a glockenspiel, some congas, a steel drum, five triangles, four sets of wind chimes and two xylophones adding to the panoply of percussion. Oh, and they dance, too. They are Gene Kellys and Gene Krupas, genetically gifted with enough super-sized doses of talent to perfect both pirouettes and paradiddles.

In all, there are 61 brass and 234 percussion and rhythm instruments used in Blast! Not to mention the 25 didgeridoos, those long wooden things from aboriginal Australia that hum with a dark, windy whooo. They carry those out into the audience at one point, buzzing and whirring through a giddy piece called "Tangerinamadidge."

The music in the show includes some classical, a little jazz and some blues. There's a spiritual played on marimbas and a Chuck Mangione song with a tuba solo. Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's "Officer Krupke" from West Side Story gets an antic treatment, allowing the musicians to clown it up at the edge of the stage.

Blast! runs like a Swiss watch, each piece flowing smoothly into the next. The pace of the show builds gradually and effectively to deafening climaxes at the ends of Act 1 and Act 2.

Conceived and directed by James Mason, director of the renowned Star of Indiana drum corps, Blast! has been on tour for the past couple of years, with successful runs in London, Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C. It played Broadway last year, receiving a special Tony Award in 2001 for "Best Special Theatrical Event."

That it got a special award in a category all its own is fitting. Blast! certainly doesn't fit the mold of traditional musical--there's no book, no storyline, no characters. And it can't be defined merely as pageantry. It's not stiff and military. It's artsy and tries to be hip. It also mixes up the moods. During several melodic solos in the show, there's a powerfully melancholy tug to the music and dance moves.

Blast! is as much about movement as it is about music. The choreography by George Pinney sends the performers jumping, rolling, spinning through space. He uses the geometry of folding chairs and fluttery flags to keep the visuals always changing. The dance in the show often is stunning in its simplicity--the rippling glint of brass horns being raised into the light, a contagion of slim bodies folding and unfolding their arms in tight formation.

The sound of Blast! is about the geometry of sound, from the tiny plink of those triangles to the mellow moo of a tuba. The warm vibration of the human vocal cord also is heard as the ensemble joins their voices in the choral section of Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring" called "Simple Gifts."

The stage and costume designs by Mark Thompson keep it simple, too. Performers wear white or black pants, plain T-shirts and sometimes another shirt tied around the waist. The only set piece is six stage-high stacked blocks (like the set of Hollywood Squares) whose colors light up and go dark like Mondrian's "Broadway Boogie Woogie" set in neon. The lighting by Hugh Vanstone plays off the simple costumes by bathing the musicians and dancers in flashes of bright primary colors and the occasional black-light novelty (the glow-in-the-dark drumsticks are a pretty cool touch).

A few moments in Blast! hit real highs.

Powered with exuberance and adrenaline, Blast! immerses theatergoers in sound and dizzies with colorful, whizzing visuals. It is impossible to entertain a random thought during its two hours, packed as it is with music and motion that demand complete attention.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner