Performance is like a day at the circus

Review: As pure entertainment, `Blast!' has its moments. But forget about trying to find inner meaning.

February 21, 2002|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN STAFF

There's probably a reason why baton twirling isn't yet an Olympic event, but it's not the reason you might think.

So, all you indignant mothers of cheerleaders, put down your pens and give your dialing fingers a rest. I'm not dissing your talented sons and daughters; I'm just saying I don't want to pay up to $63.50 to watch them perform on stage for two hours, accompanied by a 320-piece marching band - minus the woodwinds.

And yet, that's essentially what's on the Lyric Opera House stage through Sunday.

Blast! is one of several shows in recent years such as Cirque de Soleil, Stomp and Blue Man Group that are the spiritual descendants of the Big Top. Like the circus, they have modest ambitions; they aim to entertain, not uplift. Like the circus, they showcase feats of derring-do, though with the modern aids of strobe lights, fluorescent paint and a sound system so amplified it makes for sensory overload.

What makes the circus and its current incarnations so entertaining - and yes, even artful - is that they push boundaries, in one way or another. Some showcase human virtuosity, while others explore familiar experiences with childlike curiosity.

A man sticks his head inside a lion's mouth. A gymnast balances on one hand atop a stack of 17 teetering chairs. Three men painted a rich shade of cobalt explore the heretofore-unsuspected percussive potential of a mouthful of breakfast cereal.

Even though Blast! won a Tony Award last year for best theatrical event, it's the weakest show of the bunch, because its impact is created by special effects, and not human prowess.

That's not to say that the 54 young men and women in the cast aren't enormously skilled, or that the precision maneuvers they create aren't difficult, because they are.

But all of that energy and polished technique is used in the service of visual effects, and not the other way around. Many of those effects are arresting, but only briefly; without a human element, boredom quickly sets in.

Just as bad, the movements and the music that make up each of the show's 16 numbers rarely are harmoniously joined. Instead, they duke it out for the audience's attention, to the detriment of both.

Consider the rendition of Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring. First, a chorus sings (without apparent irony) the old Shaker hymn that begins, "It's a gift to be simple, it's a gift to be free," illustrating the words with hand movements of the "This is the church/this is the steeple" variety.

The chorus goes away, but is followed by cast members leaping around and waving bright green rods, for all the world as if they were performing the Dance of the Celery Stalks.

They lie down, only to be followed by cast members flapping wings of bright green cloth. My brain, desperate to find meaning, began haplessly constructing bizarre narratives:

Perhaps the celery wilted under the stage lights. Perhaps it's being pollinated by mutant, green-winged butterflies, so that the spirit of celery will live on forever. For the rest of the night, visions of leafy vegetables danced through my head.

There were, however, two splendid exceptions to the show's overall pointlessness:

A big band version of Gee, Officer Krupke was performed without lyrics but with lots of pratfalls - both of which emphasized the raucous, Big Top feeling of Leonard Bernstein's score.

And Battery Battle was a kind of dueling drumsticks that featured dazzling musicianship by two drummers who, sadly, are uncredited on the program. Not only did they set a frenetic pace, but they have also mastered their instruments so thoroughly that they could goof around, and their comic timing was impeccable.

In one segment, a drummer held one stick between his upper lip and his nose - seemingly without missing a beat. It was a bravura display, and genuinely thrilling.

It's too bad the rest of the evening wasn't.

Blast!

Where: The Lyric Theatre, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 7:30 p.m. Sunday; 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday

Tickets: $20-$63.50

Call: 410-481-SEAT

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