by Michael Bowen

Forget the toy soldier uniforms, the off-key trumpeters, all those beefy guys stuffed into tubas. Blast! is a drum major's fantasy: his band, only with drill-team timing, thunderous sound and an astronomical budget. Blast! is your school's drum and bugle corps raised to its Platonic ideal. It's the revenge of the band nerds.

As one reviewer asked, "Can you throw a 10-foot pole high in the air and catch it at the exact same time as a dozen other people catch theirs? Can you play a drum set blindfolded? Or can you perform masterpieces by Ravel and Copland while holding up a 20-pound instrument, running backwards as fast as you can and all the while staying in perfect formation with the 50 other people onstage?"

The Blast! people can. They perform a dozen musical works -- jazz, pop, classical, world music -- each with its own color scheme. Performers play a dozen different kinds of horns and more than 230 distinct percussion instruments, all while gyrating and tumbling with lock-step precision.

If you think the main excuse for football is so they can put on halftime shows, you're going to love Blast! (at the Opera House from Sept. 11-14). But what if you prefer the football part? What if you really don't care for all that halftime pageantry?

"Me, neither," says Wesley Bullock, who plays trumpet and cornet in the brass section. "It's not a halftime show. We can trace our roots to drum corps, but there are only about two drum corps moments in the entire show -- you know, where all you do is march in lines.

"It's 'noise theater,' like Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk, or Stomp, or Riverdance -- we're in that genre," says Bullock. "We are closest to Riverdance, I guess, because so much of what we do is synchronized. We have a whole lot of people doing exactly the same thing at exactly the same time, so it's impressive, really a spectacle."

The show features several dozen onstage performers. Could be 48, could be 55 or 58 -- the cast members and various promotional materials never quite agree. (There are a lot of people onstage.) Whatever the exact numbers, there are approximately 10 percussionists and 10 dancers -- sorry, members of the "Visual Ensemble" -- while the bulk of the troupe is made up of horn players. The show's first half has a grid-like look, with lines on the floor and cubes in the background (think the bottom two rows of the Hollywood Squares set and you'll have the idea). The percussion crew is often pounding away "in the cubes."

How to characterize performers in each of the show's three segments? Bullock is quick with an answer: "Percussion? They're the bad boys -- all Tommy Lee, with their tattoos. Brass? Kind of over-wholesome. I guess we're the meat and potatoes of the show. Now, the V.E. people -- let's just say they're very fashion-conscious."

The Visual Ensemble and its lead female dancer, Debbie Barrigan, may be fashion-conscious, but they also have to deal with 35 different kinds of props. "I twirl between one and three batons at once and catch them," says Barrigan. "Then we have the traditional rifle and saber, as with a military honor guard. One guy comes out and tosses a rifle in the air, does a somersault and then catches it."

The drummers aren't there simply to keep time. Randy Gorman, who plays a half-dozen different percussion instruments in the show, describes one sequence: "There's a black light effect where four of us are marching, and then some of us do solos, and then the whole snare line comes on and we're using these glow-in-the-dark sticks."

Barrigan adds that, "All you can see are the drumsticks. It's a very cool effect."

Another dramatic moment also occurs in total darkness: the entrance of the didgeridoos. These, as you no doubt recall from your college course on "Woodwind Instruments of the Australian Aborigines," are hollowed-out logs favored (not surprisingly) by aborigines, who for thousands of years have made strange droning noises with them.

Bullock, who is the show's didgeridoo soloist, reports that "our didgeridoos are about five feet long. We do a lot of jumping around with the didges. Not to over-balleticize it, but we swing those around pretty hard, so they'd be too heavy if they were made out of eucalyptus wood. Ours are made out of twisted PVC pipe, so we are all plastic."

The jumping around is pretty much continuous -- these are performers, after all, who play trumpets while doing one-handed cartwheels and being lowered from the fly space, who play trombones and French horns while riding tricycles -- so there is the potential for slip-ups. Barrigan comments that "there are so many of us onstage that if one person is even slightly off, it not only looks bad, someone could get hurt. You have to be very aware of the other 54 people onstage.

"There are some funny stories. We haven't had anyone seriously hurt -- though we've had our sprained ankles and whatnot -- but still, people have sprawled and slid all the way down ramps, and even fallen off the stage. With the cymbals, the straps have broken, so the cymbal goes flying off into the wings -- those of us offstage have to be really careful. Drummers have lost their mallets, drums have come off the spinners -- there can be all kinds of flying objects."

Nevertheless, amid all the potential mayhem, Blast! manages to produce a dozen raucous and colorful spectacles, ranging from Ravel's "Bolero" to Copland's "Appalachian Spring" and "Simple Gifts," from Bernstein's "Gee, Officer Krupke" from West Side Story to Chuck Mangione's "Land of Make-Believe."

Barrigan describes the "sexy... spicy, Spanish" final number, Ernesto Lecuona's "Malaguena," as a real audience favorite.

Bullock remarks on how Blast! rouses even the most jaded audiences. "There was only one night we did on Broadway without a standing O. And I don't know of another Broadway show that can say that."

Gorman, the percussionist, loves how influential the Blast! phenomenon has become. "Lots of kids are inspired by this," he says. "Some band directors will bring their entire bands, and lots of times the kids don't really know what to expect, but they come out really impressed.

"I think it makes high school kids who are in band more proud of what they're doing. And by the time they leave, their parents are more proud -- they understand more what their kids are doing. It just puts band more in the forefront, you know?"

Band nerds, savor your revenge.

Publication date: 09/04/03

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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.