My only question about "Blast!" is why they call it "Blast!"
With that title and a logo showing young men banging drums and shouting, with a fiery cloud in the background, people "of a certain age," like myself, are likely to be intimidated and put off, imagining it will be an evening of high-decibel noise. As it happens, "Blast!" is anything but. It is an exhilarating evening based on a large, extraordinarily talented young cast - most of whom are in their early 20s, all of whom play an instrument, dance, juggle and sing. In the course of the evening, they perform a great range of music, starting with Ravel's "Bolero," running through several of Aaron Copland's vocal arrangements of American folk music, "Land of Make Believe" by Chuck Mangione, a number from "West Side Story" and Ernesto Lecuona's once familiar "Malaguena."
Sometimes, they perform onstage. At other times, they spread through the theater, their brass instruments right in the aisle. The orchestration is limited to brass and percussion, though the former category includes some highly unusual instruments that add to the pure joy of the sound. "Blast!" grew out of marching-band maneuvers on athletic fields. These roots perhaps explain why the cast is so impressively disciplined, both musically and when they juggle flags across the stage. There is also considerable wit in the staging of the numbers. "Gee, Officer Krupke" is performed without the lyrics, giving the number a Rossini-esque quality reflected in the choreography, a bumptious clown dance. Everything is done with taste and intelligence, but what makes it such a winning evening is the cast, whose high spirits and enthusiasm are as great as their talent. The major producer of "Blast!" manufactures surgical equipment. Judging by the precision and high caliber of this show, I would buy a scalpel from them any day of the week.
To say that "Blast!" is a blast, is not unlike saying a noise is a noise - and indeed the fainthearted might consider leaving their eardrums at home - yet this strange entertainment, opening last night at the Broadway Theatre, is as quaintly beguiling as it is brashly loud.
It is one of those new age shows, like "Stomp" or "Riverdance," that is not exactly theater, not exactly music, not exactly dance, not exactly anything but itself.
In the case of "Blast!" it might be summarized as a marching band with a sense of humor seen through the crossed eyes of a boot-camp sergeant and a strictly disciplinarian ballet-mistress.
It has probably more trombones than you've ever envisaged, big fat tubas, elegant French horns, trumpets by the seeming dozen, drums and more drums, from kettle to big bass, vibraphones, mellophones, euphoniums. And even indescribable things called, and I quote, "didgerydoos," and, for I know, didgerydon'ts.
Then it has dancers - not all that good but energetic - it has flag-throwers (who are as adept as the famous Italian flag-throwers of Siena, which is really saying something) saber rattlers, spinners and tossers, and nifty juggling with wooden rifles. And did I mention baton-twirling?
All this buckling of swashes, all this circus panache, all this oompah music, the glittering brass and perfectly synchronized (the night I saw the show not a single object was dropped, not a single gesture mistimed) movements might suggest a Fourth of July translated into a month of Sundays and then squared.
Yet the militaristic aspect of the show (there's no red, white and blue uniforms or even bunting) seems carefully underplayed and although the spectacle derives from such alfresco displays accompanying football games and the like, this theatrical brother is visually, if not aurally, more quietly disposed.
Now I am not suggesting that "Blast!" is one of the great theatrical events of the year. It sure as hell isn't, and to be frank I rather resent it taking up valuable theater space.
I am told that it "grew from the drum corps Star of Indiana, which was founded in 1984 in Bloomington, Indiana, to benefit young people in music education."
Its artistic director James Mason, "a lifelong veteran of drum and bugle corps," has "shaped this outdoor pageantry to the stage."
The company now has 60 members - with, I understand, 41 world titles among them - divided into three sectors, brass, percussion and visual ensembles.
Clearly the young performers are having a ball with all this banging, thumping, throwing, blowing and a precision the Rockettes might envy, and their enthusiasm and unpretentious humor are very winning.
Why, these guys and gals are so charmingly naive that there were allegations around that they are appearing for less than union minimums! But they seem so happy that they probably wouldn't care, any more than their young, blissed-out audience.
One feels bad about criticizing the nice young men and women who perform in ''Blast!,'' the halftime show that has wandered onto the stage at the Broadway Theater as if it got lost on the way to the stadium. Mostly in their 20's, and all members of a nonprofit performing and educational group called Star of Indiana, which is based in Bloomington, they are brass players and percussionists, dancers and jugglers, a glowingly good-looking bunch, and irrepressibly cheery, too. Rah, rah.
And let me be clear: It was evident at a recent performance that their drum-and-bugle arrangements of composers like Maurice Ravel (''Bolero'' of course) and Chuck Mangione, not to mention their Vegas-y physical antics, have the power to rouse theatergoers who are eager to be roused. I was definitely in the disgruntled minority. But if you go to Broadway expecting to be moved and not just petted, you may react as I did. ''Blast!'' bored me cross-eyed.
O.K., this is obviously not a show that means to unsettle your emotions or deliver potent revelations. Its aim is pure entertainment, and the appeal of ''Blast!'' as a theater piece is in its various novelties. Notably these include the acrobatics of the musicians: the trumpet soloist who plays standing on a chair suspended high enough in the air to count as daredevilry, the unicycling trombonist and the drummer who manages a series of remarkably rapid paradiddles while gripping one drumstick between his nose and his upper lip. They also include the pleasingly oddball sound of a well-trained brass chorus and the nuanced variety of its instrumentation. One of the ways I amused myself was trying to distinguish, visually or aurally, the French horns from the mellophones, the tubas from the euphoniums, the cornets from the trumpets and the flugelhorns and the trombones from the tromboniums.
The problem is that the novelties very shortly cease to be novel, and what remains are gymnasts stymied by the burden of carrying musical instruments and musicians with their virtuosity compromised by having to jump, dance and waggle their hips in patterned teamwork.
For variety several numbers include dancers in pretty pastels who weave among the musicians in choreography of monumental blandness, or jugglers of circus items like rippling silk flags and, when the lights go out, fluorescent rods. The lighting is often party colored and overdramatic. Company members wielding Aboriginal didgeridoos, snake-shaped, tubelike instruments that emit a musical groan, venture into the audience and blow them in your ear.
As a result, anything truly excellent ends up being overwhelmed by gimmickry. Which is why the most genuinely entertaining number in the show is a loony, slapstick rendering of the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim song, ''Gee, Officer Krupke,'' the swaggery nose-thumber from ''West Side Story.'' In it the choreographic invention (including the unicycling trombonist) actually pays attention to the music, suiting its spirit and enhancing it.
Otherwise the music seems to exist merely as an excuse for showoffy theatrics, like the anthems chosen by figure skaters. Both the dancers and the juggling, for example, appear in an endless and embarrassing ballet derived from Aaron Copland's ''Appalachian Spring,'' a number that actually begins with an intriguing arrangement of the famous theme for what I think were a couple of xylophones. (The instrumentalists weren't visible.)
Several times I found myself resenting the show's enthrallment with its own bigness. Several of the drummers are impressively loud and impossibly fast, but there's not a moment in the show that is as rhythmically inventive as the much more resourceful and much quieter ''Stomp,'' or as visually arresting and recklessly entertaining as ''The Pan Handlers'' segment from ''Bring In da Noise, Bring In da Funk,'' in which two men with pots and pans draped over their bodies drum the living daylights out of each other.
And in number after number, I watched to see if the intended synchronicity of a stage movement or the intended harmony of a chord would be fouled up by a musician who couldn't hit a high note and do a jig at the same time. What does it say about a show when your interest in seeing the performers fail is equal to or greater than your delight in seeing them succeed?
Yes, this is a little uncharitable and a little perverse, but ''Blast!'' is so relentlessly pleased with itself, so confident in its clean-cut showmanship that I couldn't help it. There's a kind of evangelism at work here, and I don't mean of a religious sort but of the happy-face sort. It's a show that is occasionally naughty but never wicked, occasionally loud but never raucous, occasionally clever but never artful and so smiley and good-natured that it makes you suspicious. It's the musical theater equivalent of a decency commission. There's nothing in it to offend anyone, unless you don't live to be assuaged.
Blast," the latest mindless sight-and-sound spectacle to land on Broadway, could be subtitled "revenge of the marching-band geeks." Kids who faced humiliating remarks in homeroom class on the subject of their awkward instrument cases and cheesy uniforms now are strutting, smiling and swaying their hips in chic black overalls at the Broadway Theater, earning Broadway dollars while clearly having a hell of a time banging their drums or blowing their horns.
While "Blast" isn't precisely what you'd call intellectually challenging theater, it does bring some revelations. We now know that it is possible to play the trombone while riding a unicycle (do not try this at home, please). We also know that it's possible to look reasonably sexy while manipulating a bass tuba (don't try that either, come to think of it).
The show also is breaking new ground in the financing department: Presumably this is the first Broadway extravaganza to be produced by a company "that designs, manufactures and markets a complex group of diagnostic and minimally invasive surgical devices and instruments," hopefully including an implement capable of removing a trombone from the larynx of a unicyclist.
Clearly modeled on such previous road money-spinners as "Riverdance" and "Stomp," "Blast" borrows some of the pseudo-spiritual pretensions of the former and a splash of the brash rebellious energy from the latter, but it has its own ingratiating charm. The cast consists of nearly 60 youngsters in their 20s, divided between brass blowers, drum thumpers and members of what the program calls the "visual ensemble."
Energetic and attractive, they cheerily array themselves around the Broadway Theater stage and occasionally the rest of the house, performing what is essentially a lavishly produced, stylishly decorated and slightly more sophisticated football half-time show. (The bright costumes and black-and-white sets are courtesy of designer Mark Thompson, collaborating with lighting designer Hugh Vanstone; the two also are repped on Broadway this season by "Follies," at the other extreme of the sophistication spectrum.)
While the band marches around in geometric formations, executing minimal choreography with such appendages as are not involved in musicmaking, the members of the visual ensemble perform more elaborate -- if scarcely more sophisticated -- dancing, while also flinging flags and other objects into the air, drill-team style, winning gasps of admiration when they catch them with nary a slip.
Musical selections are eclectic, ranging from Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring" to "Gee Officer Krupke" from "West Side Story." Little vignettes, including a snare-drum battle and borderline-campy bits of ballet, break up the parade of big, blaring ensemble numbers.
"Blast" is not going to be stealing any ticket buyers from, say, "The Invention of Love," but it's a reasonably solid chunk of audiovisual stimulation and should be an easy sell to summer tourists and foreign auds. It's hard to resist a show that actually serenades the audience on the sidewalk as it exits; walking up Broadway, I half expected -- or maybe feared is a better word -- I'd see the tireless kids following me into the subway, tubas and trombones still blaring.