Mark my words, trendwatchers, the world premiere of Blast! at the Apollo Hammersmith is set to do for marching bands what Riverdance did for Irish dancing.
Much derided in American teen flicks as the preserve of high school losers, the very notion of the marching band is transformed by the arrival of this show. Never have brass and bugles been so hip and as for the 'visual ensemble', effectively a souped up troupe of male and female majorettes, well, who could believe baton-twirling could be so sexy. Blast! is the revenge of school band 'nerds' everywhere.
Blast! is borne out of Bloomington, Indiana's world champion Star of Indiana Drum and Bugle Corps and the vision of Star's producer and artistic director James Mason who conceived the idea for a theatrical show which combined the instrumental virtuosity and marching precision of the corps with the props, costuming, staging and special effects of musical theatre. The effect is stunning - both aurally and visually (aided in the latter by Mark Thompson's frames-within-frames set and the stylish jumpsuit costumes provided by Red or Dead).
The evening begins with a single spotlit steel drummer and builds to crescendo after crescendo as the cast career through classical, jazz, popular and Broadway renditions of scores by Maurice Ravel, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Chuck Mangione and others while sabres, flags, rifles and miscellaneous instruments and bodies fly through the air.
The 68 young American performers exhibit boundless energy, and the fact that they make all these antics look easy belies the months and days and hours of rehearsal that must have gone in to creating such a flawless spectacle. I've always had a great respect for accomplished musicians, but can you imagine the skill required to hit every note while simultaneously running backwards in formation or doing a one-handed cartwheel or riding a unicycle? Not to mention facially expressing the mood of the music while doing all of those things. These performers are supremely talented musicians, dancers, actors and athletes all in one.
There are a few dud numbers in the two-hour performance, particularly those which verge on beatnik-style performance poetry, but for the most part, Blast! is non-stop, high-octane fun. My personal favourites are the percussion-led sequences, such as the 'Battery Battle' where the troupe's drummers square off. They rattle away with superhuman speed and precision, most impressively displayed when the stage lights darken and only their fluorescent drumsticks can be seen as one white blur of motion. Unreal.