2008: Not just a “BLAST!” from the past

by Gary Dickelman

This article originally appeared in the June 2008 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 37, Number 3). We encourage you to subscribe to our tabloid newspaper that is printed monthly and contains a wide variety of feature-type material like this one, as well as show reviews during the season for World and Open Class junior corps, as well as Open and Class A all-age corps.

April 25, 2008 — Baltimore, MD . . . It has been 15 years since Star of Indiana’s last DCI top-10 appearance and nine years since its derivative, “BLAST!”, first performed to an overwhelmingly enthusiastic London audience.

By now it is well-known that “BLAST!” merges drum corps’ pageantry, precision and musicality with the repertoire, props, costuming, staging, dance and special effects of musical theater. It was in December 1999 when a 60-member troupe of experienced young performers — most “graduates” of DCI drum corps — dazzled an audience at the London Hammersmith Apollo Theatre for the first time.

“What’s the pit band doing on the stage?” is likely what many thought as they saw a musical begin not with singing or dialogue, but with a solitary snare drummer who is quickly surrounded by dancing, gyrating brass players.

Ravel’s Bolero? Didn’t he write that as a warm-up exercise for his orchestra? And he probably didn’t include instruments being tossed high into the air! How fitting for a drum-corps-cum-stage-troupe.

The recent Baltimore performances of the traveling “BLAST!” production at the Lyric Opera House were met with equal enthusiasm; arguably, more raucous than even the Broadway performances that earned the show its 2001 Tony Award for “Best Special Theatrical Event” and, subsequently, for “Best Choreography.”

The troupe appears to be a bit more compact now, with a cast of about 35. If you compare   programs over the years, you find that the members of the current troupe double, triple or quadruple on many instruments and roles, some playing several brass and percussion instruments at various times during the show, some dancing then playing synthesizer and percussion.

There are veterans, like Wes Bullock, who has been with “BLAST!” since its inception — and before that with Star of Indiana and “Brass Theater”, who mesmerizes us with his Didgeridoo solo in Tangerinamadidge while also serving as conductor, tour artistic supervisor and music manager.

During Friday night’s performance, I bumped into drum corps percussion legend John Flowers and his wife, Barbara, who were in the audience enjoying the show. We all agreed that this night’s performance had more energy and talent than the many prior performances we had experienced over the years. That’s quite a compliment coming from Flowers.

One can argue that Lance Kindl and David Cox’s amazing Battery Battle is rooted in techniques made popular — even “invented” — by Flowers. Remember the 1958 Bolling Air Force Base drum quartet? If you are unaware of it, check out historic Fleetwood albums on the DCW site!

The soloists were magnificent. Kristin Rea, Roque Diaz and Andrew Smith wailed away on French horn and trumpet. Everybody Loves the Blues was taken to new heights and Loss to new planes of emotion.

I was disappointed that the Loss soloist did not descend from on high, standing on a chair, as in the past (although he did stand on a chair). The fact is, I brought a nine-year-old with me who had never been to live theater and I was hoping that all of the familiar effects would be there to dazzle him.

No matter, he was dazzled nonetheless. In fact, my young friend, Micah, commented during the closing phrases of the Bolero finale, “How can they have so much energy after playing for so long?”

I noticed a few changes in the program, notably the early vocal introduction has been removed from Appalachian Spring in favor of a more robust dance segment, reminiscent of the original Martha Graham ballet for which Aaron Copland wrote the piece. Nice!
But the quality of the vocal conclusion that remains is clearly performed by much more mature choir voices than I recall from past performances or even from the now famous CD and DVD of the show. The audience was completely hushed during this segment, with expressions telegraphing deep emotional waves. Absolutely beautiful.

I was disappointed, on the one hand, that Gee, Officer Krupke is no longer in the second act. I miss the unicycling trombone player. But then, the Lyric has a rather small stage and limited room for the unicycle ramps that were constructed for the early performances.

Again, I thought Micah would have enjoyed that. He was nonetheless delighted when one of the trombonists instead wandered the audience during Land of Make Believe and gave him a high five. The little guy was grinning, ear-to-ear.

During intermission, the audience — which included many high school and middle school students who had, by now, purchased commemorative drum sticks — milled around the lobby in anticipation of the “half-time show” of four cast drummers, three playing on bar stools and the other on a plastic trash barrel.

They never materialized in the lobby, but much to our delight they showed up on stage as the first segment of act two. Nice touch. Perhaps they were concerned about being accosted in the lobby by a gaggle of admiring high school girls. No matter.

Being on stage gave us all a chance to see the spectacular demonstration of the fact that drum corps drummers will play on ANYTHING! And like the poor baseball kid who is chosen last and relegated to right field, the “garbage can drummer” demonstrated just how marginalized he felt as a third-class bass drummer. Kudos to him for commandeering one of the bar stools and upstaging Kindl and Cox by playing one drum stick with his left ear. There’s at least one wannabe in every crowd.

The two (too?) Color Wheel segments, plus Lemontech and Medea were spectacular dance/color guard numbers. Dare I say it? Not one piece of equipment was dropped! Okay . . . that sounds like Annette Bening’s character telling her “American Beauty” daughter Janey, “. . . you didn’t screw up once!”

But a couple of hours on stage are much longer than an 11-minute drum corps field show, and in much more confined spaces.

The sheer talent of ultra-athletic dancing choreographed to music, spinning rifles, silks flying across the stage, spinning pieces of space-age fencing and giant wooden blades of grass is SPECTACULAR.

Malagueña brought Ernesto Lecuono’s musical intent to life. The piece is supposed to bring meaning to its title, the feminine form of an adjective for the port of Málaga, about a woman who lives there. “BLAST!” includes no lyrics, but this piece communicates every basal emotion that Lecuono intended:

“Under those two eyebrows, What   pretty eyes you have . . . They want me to look, But if you don’t leave them, Not even to flash . . . To kiss your wanted lips, Rose leaves of Málaga . . . And telling you, beautiful girl . . . That you are pretty and magical, As the innocence of a rose.”

The visual ensemble is, well, very visual during this piece. We see wanting, romantic gazes and embraces, seemingly oblivious to flying, spinning equipment that continues to find its way into capable hands. We see testosterone-ridden competitiveness for the innocent beauty. And all the while we are hearing and seeing shades of the Madison Scouts’ 1988 DCI Championship performance.

This talented troupe enjoyed at least three standing ovations from the enthusiastic fans. Attending a “BLAST!” performance reminds me of a Grateful Dead concert or a viewing of “Rocky Horror Picture Show” or perhaps “Deliverance”. It has clearly created a cult following — an enormously positive one at that.

The teenagers who were once outcasts and nerds for being in the band or drama club are now the cool kids who aspire to “BLAST!” off.