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Theater Review

A Breathless 'Blast!' of Pure Exhilaration

August 23, 2002|DAVID C. NICHOLS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Until science comes up with something better, narcoleptics must be satisfied with "Blast!" to keep them awake. If ever a title qualified as truth in advertising, the moniker of this Tony Award-winning investigation of outdoor pageantry does, with deafening impact.

Developed by artistic director James Mason out of Bloomington's world champion Star of Indiana competitive drum corps, "Blast!," which began its limited Los Angeles premiere engagement at UCLA's Royce Hall on Wednesday, is ostensibly a blood relation of international sensations "Stomp" and "Riverdance."

Like those similarly unclassifiable constructs, "Blast!" operates as exercise in pure kinesis, eschewing narrative and meaning in favor of form and function. Movement, music and design are amalgamated for the sake of doing so, with visceral response the objective.

However, the parameters of "Riverdance" are determined by the traditions of Irish clog dancing, the boundaries of "Stomp" by combining industrial materials and post-Savion Glover street moves. Internal variations notwithstanding, both shows essentially examine single disciplines to stupendous extremes. But "Blast!," although basically a celebration of the drill team's art, is a multi-directional display of ensemble virtuosity approaching the superhuman.

Throughout a breathless two hours, all 54 touring company members prove world-class instrumentalists, dancers, gymnasts, jugglers and/or clowns, at once.

Thus the opening image of a single drum centering Mark Thompson's effective grid-patterned setting is deceptively simple. Then a white-clad figure appears, proceeding to trace the unmistakable rhythmic underpinnings of Ravel's "Bolero" with brash confidence.

Others join in, simultaneously playing instruments while executing pinpoint choreography approximating a Super Bowl half-time staged by the late Bob Fosse. As additional drummers appear in the aisles, the abridged reading builds to a frenzy, leaving the audience riotous.

By the blazing finale, Ernesto Lecuona's "Malaguena," the program touches on blues, jazz, techno-pop, rock, tribal music and musical theater ("Gee, Officer Krupke" from "West Side Story," done here in an uproarious Rube Goldberg turn). The clockwork precision encompasses the entire venue from apron to balcony with dazzling aplomb.

The star is the ensemble, most of whom are college-age, all of whom are amazing. Adam Rapa's stratospheric blues trumpet stands out, as does Nicholas E. Angelis and Christopher "Kit" Chatham's snare drum sorcery in the show-stopping "Battery Battle."

Chuck Mangione's "Land of Make Believe" benefits from soloists Frank Sullivan (fluegelhorn), Amy M. Sanchez (French horn) and Matthew A. Banks (tuba). Deborah Barrigan and Jeremiah T. Huber are notable featured dancers.

This heroic crew's maneuvers are expertly overseen by directors George Pinney and Jonathan Vanderkolff, sharing choreographic credit with Jim Moore. Musical director James Prime's arrangements seamlessly take in everything from euphonium to didgeridoo.

Thompson's bipolar set acts as an easel for his primary-accented monochromatic costumes, and Hugh Vanstone's lighting is a breathtaking show in itself, from backlights to black lights.

This is specialized stuff, including the liabilities. Tom Morse's ultra-hyped amplification borders on oppressive, even in the gracefully choral-laden "Simple Gifts" theme from Copland's "Appalachian Spring."

Nor is "Blast!" really substantial beneath the glittering facade, with a sense of repetition developing early in Act 2.

For all the thrills, it is also exhausting, like an especially ornate roller-coaster ride, as apt a simile for this rafter-raiser as any.

"Blast!," Royce Hall, UCLA, 405 Hilgard Ave., L.A. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Ends Sept. 1. $42-$67. (310) 825-2101, (213) 365-3500, (714) 740-7878. Running time: 2 hours.

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