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My memories of playing clarinet in my high school marching band are pretty hazy these days, but I do recall that it took a certain presence of mind to trill “Hail to the Vikings” while executing left and right turns. For each week’s football halftime show, our band instructor came up with a new routine—usually nothing more complicated than forming a big letter V on the field—and we dutifully learned it, practicing and practicing until our columns lined up and our harmonies weren’t entirely embarrassing.
We played only marches, because the very thought of syncopation would have thrown the entire woodwind section off stride. As I recall, the only players who seemed to be enjoying themselves were the drummers, possibly because it’s easier to march to a beat when you’re setting it yourself.
I mention all this because before seeing Blast!, the Broadway-bound halftime show that’s currently blowing the roof off the KenCen Opera House, it would never have occurred to me that a flügelhorn player ought to be able to maintain an even tone while riding a unicycle. Or that a snare drummer should be able to play paradiddles with his tongue and upper lip. Though I’d never have been able to execute a Charleston while playing an instrument (and I’m not really sure I could do so even without one), I could get my head around the notion of band members executing dance steps because I’d seen splashy bowl-game routines on TV. The notion of a cartwheeling cornetist, however, was entirely foreign to my thinking.
No longer. From the moment a single spotlighted drummer in white begins Bolero at the evening’s outset, it’s clear that Blast! is going to go out of its way to impress with material that is nothing if not unexpected. Scores of young, muscular, very athletic musicians and twirlers of various objects cross and recross the stage in patterns of logarithmic complexity as Ravel’s music (somewhat truncated, so that only the brasses are necessary) swells to its usual climax. Drummers leap and spin, trombone slides pierce the air in waves, and heads swivel so insistently that you figure Linda Blair must have had a hand in the choreography. By number’s end, you’d swear the show had torn a page from Disney’s playbook for Fantasia.
What do you do for an encore when Bolero is your opening number? Well, you might try having a man play an achingly lovely trumpet solo while balancing precariously on the seat of a chair that’s floating some 15 feet in the air. Or you could have a troupe of dancers trace eccentric patterns on a mist-shrouded stage while tossing around more colored flags than have been tossed this side of Red Square in the last half-century. How about a xylophone quintet in which the xylophones dance? Or a brawl between comically duelling drummers?
All of Blast! is as studiedly contentless as a Gap ad—and about as stylish. Though it’s playing the Opera House rather than a circus tent, if you were to call it Musique du Soleil, no one would be likely to say you nay. The impulse is the same—energy channeled into pretty patterns in a package that emphasizes youth and hard bodies. The program bios of the 60 or so cast members prominently mention their ages—nearly everyone is between 20 and 25—and there’s a note to the effect that they’ve all put their educations on hold for the duration of the run. They look almost alarmingly healthy, and though the routines they run must be exhausting, they end the evening out in the lobby dancing with the customers who have just given them a second standing ovation. Does a single moment of the show engage the intellect? Nope. Not one. But if you’ve got a pulse, you’re likely to have a blast.
Shenandoah Shakespeare Express also trades heavily on youth and energy. The troupe’s mission, honed in a decade of touring, is to do its namesake’s plays much as they were done in his own time: in modern dress, in light shared by the audience, and in rotating repertory with much doubling of roles.
It’s rare that SSE comes to town with just a single play—part of the fun of the company’s visits is the chance to see an actor play Romeo one night and Richard III the next—but in Twelfth Night at the Folger Shakespeare Library, SSE has provided an instructively compact example of the device. The actor who plays Sebastian, one of the shipwrecked twins on whom the plot’s confusion centers, also plays Maria, a servant who sets a low-comedy subplot in motion.
Directors Stephen Booth and Ralph Alan Cohen offer a justification for this casting fillip in the program—the general gist is that the two characters don’t appear on stage together, and because female roles were played by boys in Elizabethan times, why not?—and David McCallum makes the device work well enough. He’s understandably more fun in drag—Sebastian is usually something of a stick, and McCallum’s a lively stage presence, so it’s gratifying that he’s allowed to cut loose. Also fun are the other low-comedy players—snivelling Patrick Fitzgerald as a rodentlike Sir Andrew Aguecheek, gangly Jeff Brick as a Malvolio who looks remarkably like a cross-gartered grasshopper once he’s donned his yellow stockings for the show’s final scenes.
The romantic leads are capable, but they struck me as less interesting, possibly because they pale by comparison with their vibrant musical counterparts in Play On! at Arena Stage. It’s also possible that SSE’s interpretation of the play is simply tamer than we’re used to hereabouts. D.C. audiences have been treated to some remarkable Twelfth Nights of late, including one at Washington Shakespeare Company in which both Viola and Sebastian were played by women, which recharged every single sexual relationship in a comedy that relies heavily on gender confusion. Whatever. The evening is perfectly pleasant, and the production’s timing offers an added dividend this weekend: The chance to see Twelfth Night on Twelfth Night doesn’t come along very often. CP