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It's a BLAST!

The marquee at the Hyperion Theater in California Adventure
The marquee at the Hyperion Theater in California Adventure

"Cirque Du Soleil with instruments." "Stomp, but with music." "A half-time show on speed." "Kind of like Riverdance, but without the dancing." "Just go see it - I can't explain."

Ask anyone who has already seen Blast! to describe it, and these descriptions are probably what you will hear. I was first introduced to Blast! this summer in Epcot, where the show was wrapping up the final days of their Walt Disney World appearance. The show was described to me as "The Magic Kingdom Corps on stage". Given that I was hot, tired and blistered from a day running around the park, Blast! sounded like something I could live without seeing. Fortunately, my companions felt otherwise, and I found myself slipping into the last empty row of the outdoor theater seconds before the music began.

The opening stage is set with a single drum under a spotlight
The opening stage is set with a single drum under a spotlight

The house lights dimmed, and a lone drummer strode onto stage, tapping out a familiar rhythm. Another performer joined him after a moment, sending a pulsing horn note into the night sky. As additional musicians joined the pair, I recognized the song - Ravel's Bolero. The stage filled with musicians, lurching, crawling, sliding onto the stage, hips swiveling to the unending beat of the drum. "Thank you", I said to my friends, and sat back to enjoy one of my favorite pieces of music, performed by a group who obviously were several notches above the old Disneyland group they had been compared to.

Publicity photo  Star of Indiana, Inc.
Publicity photo Star of Indiana, Inc.

30 minutes later, we had been taken from Bolero's soaring heights, through a playful interpretation of Chuck Mangione's Land of Make Believe, past a high-energy percussion piece, and into the punching climax of Lecuona's Malaguena. Meanwhile, the stark black and white stage backdrop had risen to reveal a Hollywood Squares-esqe percussion platform. The troupe of 60 performers had leapt, danced, marched, strutted and cartwheeled across the stage.

Musicians appeared in the audience, played from the aisles, interacted with the crowd. Flags, sabers, rifles, people, and even the musical instruments themselves had been flung into the air, tossed from person to person, and waved high above the audience. All too soon, it was over, and the performers bounced up the aisles to greet the audience as they exited the theater.

The end of Bolero
The end of Bolero

As I walked into the night, I was greeted by a smiling musician. "Thanks for coming", he said. I walked across to the store in the American pavilion, to look for something I had spotted earlier in the day. Sure enough, there is was - the display of Blast! merchandise. After snapping up both the CD and DVD, I rejoined my friends and we started back to our hotel, plotting a way to get Blast! to come to DCA. "This is what the Hyperion Theater needs", exclaimed one. "Kick out Steps in Time, and get something like this in there!"

It looks like our plotting and wishing paid off. Blast! has indeed come to Disney's California Adventure, opening on Thanksgiving Day. Reviews from people who have already seen the show have been extremely positive, and the performers received standing ovations at each of their first four shows. And still, no one seems to know how to describe the show. Hyperion Theater cast members, standing outside the theater to distribute Fast Pass "tickets" for the show, seem to have a difficult time, using all of the descriptions above to try to entice guests into the theater.


Dueling drumsticks

The history of Blast! goes back to the football fields of America, where marching bands and drum corps compete. In 1984, corporate executive Bill Cook founded a drum corps, eventually named the "Star of Indiana." Cook recruited Jim Mason as the corps director, and the group grew to achieve rapid success. In 1991 the group earned the World Championship at the Drum Corps International competition. By 1993, Mason had become restless with the traditional drum corps format, and started exploring a new direction for the group.

From 1994 to 1996, the corps toured with the Canadian Brass, in a format called Brass Theater. The Canadian Brass / Star show traveled across the country, performing in theaters large and small. By 1997, the rigors of touring had taken their toll on the group, and Mason looked for a place to settle the company down for an extended engagement. During the next two years in Branson, Missouri, the show was redesigned, new members were added, and Blast! was ready to meet the world. The corps headed to London in November 1999, where they launched a 22-week stint at the Apollo Theater.

A black-lit blur of sticks
A black-lit blur of sticks

Critics did not know what to make of the new show. Despite their initial trepidation, the reviewers gave the show high marks. Appearances on popular BBC shows helped to boost ticket sales during slow weeks, and Blast! closed with regret when a new show moved in. The group embarked on a short US tour in the fall of 2000, and then opened on Broadway in April, 2001. The Broadway run ended abruptly after the September 11th attacks, and those members who wanted to remain with Blast! were sent to the touring companies, or to join the new Anaheim-based group.

The Anaheim cast is living in apartments around the city, and will be performing four shows a day, six days a week. Corps members were selected from over five thousand audition tapes, and range in age from 18 - 31. For the performers I have spoken with, joining Blast! has been a dream come true, especially for the older cast members. After a high school musician graduates, their musical options are limited. Some join college bands, others, if they are lucky enough to live in an area with a strong DCI community, can join a local corps. But corps members "age out" when they turn 22, leaving them with very few options. Some join "senior corps", others stay on as instructors, but most leave music entirely. It can be crushing to spend 10 or more years developing a skill, only to be told you are "too old" to continue on. The average member of Blast! is 23, and most have come from competitive DCI corps.

The drum rack lowers from the ceiling
The drum rack lowers from the ceiling

The DCA version of Blast! closely matches the Epcot production. The show again opens with Bolero, the piece that has become a signature for the group. In the next piece, a lone drummer again takes the stage and proceeds to wow the audience with his proficiency, playing the top, sides and bottom of the drum, juggling his drumsticks the entire time. As his set ends, another drummer comes out to demonstrate his own skills, and the act shortly turns into a duel between the two.

Just when you think you've had enough drumming for one afternoon, thank you very much, the duo is joined by the remainder of the percussion line, and a gigantic drum rack descends from the rafters. In a blur of black-light enhanced motion, the line astonishes the crowd with complicate patterns and rhythm.

Publicity photo  Star of Indiana, Inc.
Publicity photo Star of Indiana, Inc.

The next piece is called "Lemontech", and features the skills of the visual ensemble. A variety of props, including sticks, flags, and clear plastic rifles are spun and tossed to a techno- pop musical construct. Some of the skills demonstrated look deceptively simple; others, like catching a volley of flags thrown from offstage, are astounding.


Lemontech, a swirl of flags and rifles

After three fast-paced numbers, it's time to mellow out a bit. A lone french horn player on the apron begins "Land of Make Believe", and is answered by another performer in a balcony. A drummer, set amid a cluster of bongos, taps out the beat. As the piece develops, more and more performers take their positions on stage - sitting, kneeling, lounging about. It is a casual song, and the performers have a lot of fun with it. They stroll the aisles and greet the audience, sitting in empty theater seats to play for a bit.

This is where the black and white backdrop is lifted, and the audience gets their first glimpse of the amazing percussion stage which has been hiding all this time. Six multicolored boxes, stacked three across and two high, house an astonishing array of drums, keyboards, xylophones and rhythm instruments. In the traditional marching band format, the percussion "pit" is often relegated to a secondary position on the sidelines. In Blast!, they get their moment in the spotlight.

The percussion boxes revealed
The percussion boxes revealed

"Land of Make Believe" winds down to just the two horns which started it, and then the stage is cleared for the final piece, "Malaguena". This is a high- octane number with a Latin flair, and it is loud. Like the other pieces, Malaguena has a subplot, this time a sultry romance. A breathtaking combination, where two performers toss their respective props high in the air, leap into one another's arms, and still manage to catch their props is repeated for effect. The song closes with a blast of horns, as wispy red flags on twenty-foot poles are snapped high above the audience.

The members of Blast! close every show by meeting the audience in the lobby of the theater, or, in the case of the lobby- less Hyperion, the forecourt. This is not an opening-day publicity stunt; this is another opportunity for the cast to interact with the audience. Listen to the audience as they leave the theater, and you'll get quite an earful. "Wonderful," "Fabulous," "The best thing this park ever did."


Finding the best seat in the house is a personal matter. If you want to be able to take in the entire show at a glance, the mezzanine and balcony seats provide a nice overview of the stage, and give you a little space between the blasting trumpets and your delicate eardrums. If you want to be right in the thick of the action, an orchestra seat will work nicely. And aisle seats in the mezzanine and orchestra levels let you interact with the performers who will be racing up and down past you.

Blast! merchandise, much of it seemingly from the closed Broadway production, is offered for sale at the Gone Hollywood shop in DCA. After each performance, a steady stream of customers crowds around the display to snap up CDs and programs.

Blast merchandise from the Broadway tour
Blast merchandise from the Broadway tour

In every respect, Blast! seems to be just what DCA needed to revive its entertainment reputation. While many point out that Disney had to go "outside" the company to find this caliber of entertainment, Blast! creator Jim Mason has repeatedly likened the show to a Disney production. He has called it "Fantasia come to life", and said "Blast is almost like Disneyesque animation, only, in Blast, the animation comes to life with real people playing the music and interpreting it visually".

But the question remains - how long will the show stick around? While some believe that the show is here for a year, other sources say that a final contract still has not been signed. The Blast! performers say that they were told that they should fill the 2,000 seat theater for each of the 4 daily performances. DCA's attendance, frequently less than 5,000 guests, can not live up to that expectation. The performers have already been heard complaining about the low turnout, and this was after the Thanksgiving weekend crowds gave DCA its highest attendance in months.

Publicity photo  Star of Indiana, Inc.
Publicity photo Star of Indiana, Inc.

While Blast! alone isn't the answer to DCA's attendance worries, the show and the new annual pass deal are a great start. Break in your new pass and go see Blast! - you won't be sorry. But be sure to catch this act quickly, before they tire of being a big fish in a small pond.

You can also catch the national touring company, and see the entire show which won the 2001 Tony Award in the Special Theatrical Event category. They will be at the Orange County Performing Arts Center from December 27th - January 6th. Visit the show's official web site for complete tour dates and ticket information.

ALSO:

Photos for this review were taken by Adrienne Vincent- Phoenix

INTERESTING FACTS FROM THE BROADWAY PRODUCTION:

Cast Age

  • The cast ranges in age from 18-31 years old.

  • The average age of the blast! cast is 23.8 years old.

  • The median age of the blast! cast is 23.9 years old.

  • The average BLAST! cast member was 9 years old when he / she first began learning a performing art (this equals 759 combined years in the performing arts)

  • The average BLAST! cast member was 11 years old when he / she first began learning the primary instrument / role that they perform with BLAST! (this equals 739 combined years on their primary instrument / role)

Drum Corps / Winterguard Affiliation

  • BLAST! cast members collectively have affiliations with 34 drum corps and 21 winterguards.

  • 54 (98.2%) cast members have been a member of a drum and bugle corps.

  • 25 (45.5%) cast members are former Drum Corps International (DCI) World Champions (3 are two-time world champions)

  • 5 cast members are former Winterguard International (WGI) World Champions.

  • 8 (14.5%) cast members are DCI Individual & Ensemble World Champions 2 are two-time I&E Champions).

  • 27 (49.1%) cast members are former DCI, WGI and/or I&E World Champions.

  • One cast member joined his first drum and bugle corps at the age of 5.

Interesting Facts

  • One member recorded with The Canadian Brass on their album titled "Brass on Broadway"

  • Seven members performed in the Closing Ceremonies for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, GA.

  • Two members left jobs as professional musicians with Disney to join BLAST!

  • One member was a principal dancer with the Georgia Ballet Co. Two members  performed on a Grammy- nominated album.

  • Members have performed professionally with numerous jazz ensembles, brass ensembles, and 24 regional symphony orchestras

School Major and Affiliation

  • 42(76.4%) cast members are majoring in or have graduated with degrees in music, dance, or theatre.

  • 19 (34.6%) cast members are majoring in or have graduated with degrees in music education.

  • Five cast members are either students or graduates of the world-renowned Indiana University School of Music.

  • One cast member is a student at the prestigious University of Cincinnati - College Conservatory of Music.

  • Three cast members are pursuing or have completed Masters of Music degrees.

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