James Mason, the man behind the new drum and bugle corps-inspired stage sensation called "Blast!," is not modest about his ambitions for the show.
"What `Riverdance' did for Celtic dancing and `Cirque de Soleil' did for the circus," he says, "we could do for instrumental music."
It may be an ambition as big as this lavish production, which opened a three-week, pre-Broadway run at the Opera House of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington last week. But for Mason, who conquered outdoor precision music and marching before tackling a stage version, it seems right in character.
"Blast!" has been called drum and bugle corps meets "Riverdance" and "Stomp." But even if you are a hard-core drum and bugle corps fan (like yours truly), it's like nothing you've ever seen before.
There are horn players turning one-armed cartwheels, a trombone player on a unicycle and a solo trumpeter lowered from the ceiling on a folding chair to play a melody of grief and longing. There's a section of "The Pines of Rome" by Ottorino Respighi, a playful "Gee, Officer Krupke" from Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story" and a fiery "Malaguena" of Ernesto Lecuona. Dancers crisscross the stage twirling huge flags or tossing rifles and swords and catching them right on the musical cues.
Despite its made-for-Broadway flash, "Blast!'s" roots are firmly planted in drum and bugle corps tradition. The show evolved from Star of Indiana, a drum and bugle corps from Bloomington, Ind., that placed in the top 10 internationally in 1984, its first year of competition. It was the highest finish ever for a rookie corps. Star won a world title in 1991 and soon left the field of competition to tour with Canadian Brass, a classical brass quintet with a penchant for showmanship, as Brass Theater.
Brass Theater landed in the show town of Branson, Mo., in 1997, and Mason, founding director of Star, began putting together "Blast!" with former members of his old corps and members of other championship corps who had "aged out" of corps competition at 22.
"I looked at all that talent out there that was going to waste," he says. "They were the world's best at what they did, and they deserve to be showcased on the greatest stages in the world."
Backed by Cook Group Inc., the Bloomington-based medical supply giant that sponsored Star of Indiana, Mason rented an abandoned elementary school north of Bloomington and began recruiting from the worlds of drum corps and theater for his cast and staff.
The cast members, ranging in age from 18 to 31, put their college educations - many of are music majors - and careers in other fields on hold to join the show.
They rehearsed in the school parking lot 10 and 12 hours a day through the spring and summer just like a drum corps would, honing every spot in the show again and again, then doing it a few more times just to make sure.
"Blast!" premiered Dec. 14, 1999, at the Apollo Theater in the West End of London, where it played for six months. A videotape of the show became a staple of PBS' beg-athons in August, and "Blast!" returned to the United States to play Boston, Detroit and Milwaukee.
The troupe split early in the fall, with the brass and visual ensemble sections going back to Europe and the percussion section staying here to play the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony. Now, they're back together.
Jodi Carey, one of the featured flag twirlers, calls it the "high general effect" part of the show, the numbers that bring the crowd out of its seats.
Carey, a 22-year-old from New York City, started in dance classes as a child and got into drum and bugle corps at 14. Like many of the other cast members, she was looking for new challenges in her art form.
"I love performing, and drum corps helped me grow in that," she says. "But in drum corps you aren't looked at as an individual performer. You're part of the group."
Where: Kennedy Center, Washington
When: Through Jan. 14. Opens April 12 at the Broadway Theater, Broadway and 53rd Street in New York.
Admission: $20-$79 (9 p.m. New Year's Eve performance $50-$110)