Dancing to different drummers

“Blast!” puts a new spin on traditional marching band fare.

Katie Wilber

If all marching bands sounded like this, attendance at sporting events would skyrocket. Drawing from selections as diverse as Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero” and Aaron Copland’s “Simple Gifts” to “Malaguena” and “Gee Officer Krupke,” the show lived up to its explosive moniker.

With more than 50 percussion, brass and visual performers, “Blast!” is a whirling, stunning presentation combining the precision of a marching band with the dance, costumes, staging and special effects of musical theater. It has captivated audiences since it was first performed in London in 1999, and it won the 2001 Tony Award for Best Special Theatrical Event. Not too bad a deal for something that started out with oboes and fifes.

Flags and music were popular weapons of intimidation in Europe by the 16th century. In this country, drummers were used to help militiamen practice marching as early as 1633. The United States’ first military band made its debut in 1756 with a division of the Pennsylvania militia, and from then on no self-respecting army would go anywhere without musical accompaniment.

With the first downbeat of the snare drum, the cast of “Blast!” owned the stage. The performers cartwheeled and did the splits while holding instruments, then showed that “Everybody Loves the Blues.” It takes talent to create emotion without words, but when a lone trumpeter descended from the ceiling for a heart-wrenching performance of “Loss,” skeptics became believers.

Not only do they dance and play instruments; they can sing, too. A couple mellow songs from Copland set a different mood, but “Battery Battle” caused rousing rounds of shouts and applause throughout the piece.

The audience sauntered out of the theater after a frantic, frenetic arrangement of “Medea” closed the first act, but about five minutes later noise from the second level sent a rush of people racing up the stairs. It wasn’t a surprise performance by N’SYNC; it was four of the percussionists playing three wooden stools and a large plastic garbage can. They were in their element here, joking with the audience and one another as they flipped their drumsticks around like batons.

A marvelous arrangement of “West Side Story’s” “Gee Officer Krupke,” including snippets from “London Bridge” and “Rhapsody in Blue,” was a highlight of the second act. No longer ramrod-straight marchers, the cast skipped and somersaulted across the stage.

“Lemontech” and “Tangerinamadidge” showcased the technical strengths of the visual performers, who appeared throughout the show with flags, rifles, glow-in-the-dark apparatuses and more.

Even good performers make mistakes, but great performers make slip-ups look like they were supposed to happen. During a solo, a snare drummer watched in consternation as his drumstick hit the edge of the drum and rolled offstage. He looked back at the audience with a sly grin and pulled out another drumstick, earning a round of applause from the nearly sold-out house.

“Malaguena,” a number that went from sultry to jazzy and back again, brought more than two hours of nonstop action to a perfect end, but it would have been better if they’d played all night long.