The Halftime Show Becomes the Main Event

TIMES THEATER WRITER

"Blast" takes its title literally as it obliterates prejudices about marching bands, drum and bugle corps and drill teams

Substitute sexy for corny, fresh for old-fashioned. Forget bulky uniforms. Banish the thought that such groups are explicitly or even vaguely jingoistic. Though an element of kitsch remains, "Blast"--which opened Thursday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center--redeems kitsch.

At my high school, eons ago, marching band was a way to escape regular P.E. classes. Sure, we had to march and play an instrument, but it beat the alternative.

Times have changed. "Blast" is intensely physical. If it were a school band, its members would deserve quadruple P.E. credit.

But "Blast" is far slicker than any school band. Although it originated in the drum and bugle culture of Indiana, "Blast" has already been to London and Broadway. Surely Las Vegas is around the corner, judging from that city's thirst for new forms of spectacle.

At first it may seem confining to put 60 performers (mostly in their 20s), 61 brass instruments, 234 percussion instruments and 265 visual props, plus a backdrop of six large open rectangles that hold some of the percussion forces, on one indoor stage. Surely the clutter will overwhelm. And aren't bands often best seen from above, looking down at the formations from the bleachers?

How retro such thoughts seem, after seeing "Blast." Staging director Jonathan Vanderkolff takes care that even in the biggest scenes, everyone knows exactly what to do without running into someone else. The movement makes sense.

More important, "Blast" isn't interested only in the crowd scenes.

The first-act finale begins with a blistering solo drum act by Nicholas E. Angelis, who has charisma to burn, as a dancer as well as drummer. He's soon challenged by another solo drummer, Aaron M. Guidry. They duel, and before long the stage is engulfed in full-scale percussion combat.

A couple of trumpeters also make sizzling individual impressions. Adam Rapa is a 21-year-old jazz wizard with a cocky air and a seemingly inexhaustible ability to climb higher into the musical stratosphere. Then there is Frank Sullivan, who goes in the other direction, toward peace and calm, literally descending from above at one point and later holding an incredibly long note with no apparent sweat.

Likewise, the tone of the show varies more than one might imagine, with a mellow sequence based on "Simple Gifts," a song best known for its use in Copland's "Appalachian Spring," preceding that percussion fury in the first act.

The second act varies from New Age color patterns to the insouciance of "Gee, Officer Krupke" to a remarkably inviting incursion into the audience during Chuck Mangione's "Land of Make Believe" to international rhythms in "Marimba Spiritual," "Earth Beat" and "Malaguena."

Praise be to artistic director James Mason for making no attempt to incorporate a post-Sept. 11 patriotic statement into the show--it would have defeated his effort to change the image of this kind of material.

The cast--including an array of "visual ensemble" members who dance, twirl and hoist more than they play instruments--overflows with vibrant energy. Even during the intermission, when you would expect them to rest, four drummers create a commotion in the lobby with a bit that's reminiscent of "Stomp."

This version of "Blast" is not to be confused with a 25-minute sampler that's playing at Disney's California Adventure theme park through the end of 2002.

"Blast," Orange County Performing Arts Center, Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Tuesday-Friday, 8 p.m. Ends Jan. 6. $22-$57. (714) 740-7878; (213) 365-3500; (TTY) (714) 556-2746. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

Produced by Cook Group International, William A. Cook and Star of Indiana, artistic director James Mason. Acting director George Pinney. Musical director James Prime. Staging director Jonathan Vanderkolff. Sets and costumes by Mark Thompson. Lighting by Hugh Vanstone. Sound by Tom Morse. Choreography by Jim Moore, Pinney and Vanderkolff. Production stage manager L.A. Lavin.

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