Rhythm Nation

Blast! Takes Off at the Arlington

Blast! is the Cinderella of the marching band world. What started several years ago as a youth drum corps in Indiana has since expanded its repertoire and undergone several incarnations to become one of the most popular touring shows in the country. Next week, Blast! springs to life on the Central Coast as part of the Arlington Theatre’s Broadway series. “Our roots date back to the Star of Indiana Drum and Bugle Corps,” said featured performer Wes Bullock. “We were young, and very good.” As for his craft, he added, “it’s hard to describe drum corps. Take a marching band and put it on steroids — meaning it’s aggressive, less flouncy. Basically a really cool marching band without any woodwind instruments.” Popular predominantly in the Midwest, drum groups generally tour and play short gigs for paying audiences throughout the summer months. Musician and businessman Jim Mason, however, saw new potential for the Star of Indiana. Based in Bloomington, he was well acquainted with the troupe and wanted to see what the kids could do with a two-hour stage show. Thus Blast! was born, and it has since played London, Tokyo, and Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center. In addition, a six-month New York stint led to a 2001 Tony Award for best theatrical event and Mason’s best director nomination for a 2002 National Broadway Theater Award. “Drumming is our roots,” Bullock said, “but the show has really gone beyond its roots.”

Forgoing a set storyline, Blast! exemplifies atypical Broadway. Its theatrical genre? “Noise,” laughed Bullock. “It is a plot-less, text-less piece of theater.” The action is theoretically based on the color wheel, with each scene costumed and staged in shades of each spoke. “We explore colors,” he explained. “For example, green is a cool color. Black is used to show anger. The end of the show is hot and fiery, just awesome.”

Though drums still play a starring role, Blast! has evolved into a showcase for a broad spectrum of instruments. According to Bullock, the tour travels with 600 percussion instruments, as well as drum mallets and “the entire brass family.” The cast will do its best to make Arlington patrons part of the action. “We play didgeridoos up and down the aisles,” Bullock enthused. “At one point, nearly the entire cast of 30 is in the auditorium, except for a couple of tubas left onstage.” Individual numbers represent countries across the globe, starting here in America with Aaron Copland’s haunting “Appalachian Spring” suite and the joyous Leonard Bernstein ditty, “Gee, Officer Krupke” from West Side Story; blues, big band material, and spirituals are also featured.

Sound isn’t the only important sensory aspect of Blast! As in most Broadway shows, “dance is huge for us,” Bullock said. Choreographers Jonathan Vanderkolff and George Pinney received Tony nominations for their work with the show. In a unique display of versatility, every Blast! musician is capable of executing rigorous dance choreography, and the production’s dance squad can whistle — and drum — a happy tune. “It’s not typical Broadway dance,” Bullock said. “They’re throwing sabers and flags around the stage, and they also play percussion.” Every one of the show’s performers is “constantly in motion,” he added. “It’s a visual ensemble.”

A cast member’s show night agenda can be quite chaotic. Bass players, for example, might be pounding instruments in one scene and tap dancing their way through the next. According to Bullock, “you might sing during the ‘Appalachian Spring’ number, then drum a bit, then go change [costume] and play the horn.”

With precise choreography necessary for both the dance and the music, rehearsals for this national tour are intense. At its base in Bloomington, Indiana, the company practiced “101⁄2 hours per day, six days per week, for five weeks” in preparation for the road. In keeping with a “homegrown” philosophy, cast members took their paces in the same elementary school — now closed — which was used as a practice facility by the original Star Drum Corps. “We rehearse in the old cafeteria with push-away tables,” said Bullock. A former trumpet player understudy, he now acts as Blast!’s conductor and performance supervisor — the mayor of a community of performers who turn to him for guidance. “Most of this cast has done drum corps, but there are many that haven’t. We’ve got kids right out of high school — little prodigies,” he said fondly. This multi-talented mother ship lands at theArlington on Thursday, March 16, and blasts off promptly at 7:30.

4•1•1 Blast! shows on Thursday, March 16 at 7:30 p.m. at Arlington Theatre. For more information, visit

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