date published: February 18, 2002

3-2-1...Blast Off!
Comparisons to Riverdance and Stomp be damned-Blast! creator James Mason has transformed marching band pageantry into an exuberant, wildly colorful theatrical confection that's in a category all its own
by Maggie J. Knowles

Band of the run-The acrobatic musicians in Blast! light up the stage at the Wang Theatre February 26-March 3.

Spanning history, the wisest of minds have proclaimed music as the universal language. Taking this theorem for a spin, Blast! suggests that we speak in a fantastical, orgasmic language that sparkles with color, light and energy-and makes for one heck of a good time.

Helping to redefine the term "musical theatre," Blast! presents its box of aural and ophthalmic wizardry at the Wang Theatre February 26-March 3. A theatrical cousin of Stomp and Riverdance, the show extends the gene pool by incorporating musical virtuosity and special effects with the fundamentals of outdoor pageantry. Those so-called "band geeks" in high school who marched in the cold during halftime of the football game were actually the inspiration for the show's outright sexy, passionate antics.

That's right. And the man who is credited for injecting a shot of pizzazz into the tassel-toed musicians is James Mason. Prior to creating the Tony Award-winning Blast!, the seed for Mason's future was watered with help from an adventurous girl, a small dog and a scarecrow?

As a youngster, Mason saw The Wiz on Broadway, where he became enamored with the Yellow Brick Road. In this late '70s production, the road was made up of dancers who would manipulate long poles as the characters skipped through them. As the surrounding audience's applause roared with each gilded flip, Mason sat there thinking, "Not only can they manipulate these poles, but they can throw them 30 feet in the air to another person and catch them behind their backs."

In that single aspect of The Wiz, Mason saw something that was exciting for an audience to watch and that could make for a great show itself.

Hitting a High Note-Blast!'s pulsing, kaleidoscopic choreography has shifted the boundaries of musical theater.

Over the next decade, Mason's career in outdoor pageantry skyrocketed. A life-long veteran of drum and bugle corps, he marched in a championship corps and then directed The Star of Indiana group to a coveted World Championship in 1991.

Mason was thrilled with this achievement, but craved a bigger challenge still. He wanted to take these musician/marchers, who were overflowing with talent, and place them on a stage where everyone could see their amazing skills.

He made a few calls to our northern neighbor, home to the Canadian Brass quintet, and expressed his desire to "break out and try something new." The quintet suggested Mason and his group tour with them for a few summers. This generous offer was a major stepping stone in the gestation period of Blast!.

"Being with a group like that really taught us about playing inside venues, comedic timing, how to act with an instrument in your hand and one in your face," Mason recalls. "We saw what type of response we were getting and that really encouraged us. The Canadian Brass said, 'You really have something here and you need to go out and do it.'"

Their performances were videotaped and sent to presenters around the world. Producers in London caught wind of the show and viewed the troupe as a gem that hadn't yet been discovered. They called Mason and asked him to extend the performance to two hours and bring it over to London.

It was then that Blast! was born and its music brought to life.

The stigma that "marching bands just march" was stripped to its barest essentials and redressed to the nines. Now the fields were full with crawling, leaping, lunging bodies; their instruments extensions of their choreographed limbs. "We try to interpret the body musically and involve it so it is a holistic experience," says Mason. "In Blast!, we throw the music stands away and push aside the chairs. The musicians become the actors and animators of the music, in a Fantasia-like way. We bring the music to life and put it in motion."

Though Blast! has no story line per se, the silk thread that ties the show together is certainly a vibrant one.
"We do a journey through color," explains Mason. "We want to explore the playfulness of yellow, the moody qualities of blue, the passion of red. We pick pieces that allow us to do that."

As much as playing your favorite music and dancing for two hours sounds like fun, these performers are not only world-class musicians, but also finely tuned athletes. Three months of arduous training is mandatory for all Blast! performers. For up to 10 hours a day, the cast perfects one-handed cartwheels while holding trombones and work on formations executed with military-like precision.

The colors, music, energy and dance combine into a synergistic medley that appeals to what some have claimed to be the most diverse audience in theater.

"I get the biggest thrill sitting in the lobby and watching people after the show," says Mason. "You can literally see the joy on their faces." A night out at Blast! will definitely put a smile on your face. In fact, it will almost make you believe in magic.

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