A few years back, a curious little show called Blast! took New York City's Broadway Theatre by storm. It combined marching band and drum corps musicians with the full-blown theatrics and choreography of a Broadway show and even received a 2001 Tony Award for Special Theatrical Event, which it deserved because how many shows have you seen with a trombonist playing the theme from The Simpsons while riding a unicycle? Let's see Elaine Stritch try that!
Blast! is back with an all new production called Blast II: Mix, Music in X-treme, and it is in the midst of a Japanese tour. Why Japan, you ask? Because the original incarnation of the show proved so successful in the Land of the Rising Sun that it became the biggest selling touring theatrical event in Japan's history, according to Blast II lighting designer Mike Baldassari. Also onboard are scenic designer Patrick Fahey and projection designer Michael Clark, all under the guidance of artistic director James Mason. The lighting equipment was supplied by 4Wall- New York, the projection equipment came from Scharff Weisberg, and the sets were constructed by Atlanta-based Infinite Dimensions and Scenic Technologies.
How does Blast II differ from its predecessor? “This one is bigger and much more theatrical,” Baldassari explains. “The first one was more about getting the marching band and drum corps onto a Broadway stage, and in this version, we were able to integrate music, dance, and theatrical effects on a much more sophisticated level.” The design approach was completely different, according to Fahey. “So much of the show was developed as we were working on it. Everything is abstract,” he says. “We had to give ourselves the opportunity to move color and shapes; a lot of work was colorizing and adding textures to the set.” With the sometimes acrobatic musicians and the use of gauze, bungee jumpers, and the like, some may see it more akin to “marching band meets Cirque du Soleil.”
Despite the show's impressive pedigree, the creative team did not want anything that remotely resembled the original show which, aside from its Broadway engagement, also toured the US and the world, was shown numerous times on PBS, and is even widely available on DVD. The goal was to create an entirely new version from the ground up that had never been seen before, Baldassari says. “If someone said, ‘That's how we did it before,’ we purposely went in the opposite direction.”
For Clark's part, his role was a tad different from much of the theatrical work he's done in the past. “This is a slight departure from what I normally do,” he explains. “The projections are more of a design element rather than a storytelling device.” For example, when a solo trumpeter is performing “Flight of the Bumble Bee,” a golden triangle is projected on the back wall via a pair of Barco R6+ projectors. The triangle is halved and made to look as if it has wings as it flits about the rear wall. “We watched [trumpeter Adam Rappa] do his freeform choreography, and then we had programmer Corey FitzGerald program the movement so it gives the effect of him controlling the shape even though it's been carefully rehearsed to interact with the way he likes to play. There's a lot of fun in it.”
The look of the show is decidedly industrial, but that does not mean chrome sets and stark white light. Baldassari's biggest challenge was how to make the unit set look different from number to number. “The way I approach it is that each song has its own unique color palette, even though little has changed within the scenery,” he explains. “I use very controlled color palettes. Not every song has every color in it.”
For a number called “Shapes,” which features the show's icons — a triangle, circle, and square as the design elements — Baldassari just uses red, blue, and yellow. For “Tribal Towers,” a number that features eight bungee jumpers and a snare drum rack that flies in, the look is very stylized with a limited palette: no color, just versions of white, warm incandescent whites, contrasted with cool moving light whites. “That gigantic number existed right in that little color world,” he says. But for a take on Stravinsky's “Rite of Spring,” he used a lot of greens and oranges. “I try to limit the palette as much as possible,” he says. “I start with two colors plus white. The tighter the color palette, the more unique each song will look.”
These shapes are the chief design element for the half hour before curtain, as the crowd is milling in. Clark created a 21st century version of the classic 1970s video game Pong, in which the circle is being bounced between the triangle and square. “We put a pair of Barco's R6+ projectors upstage and used a [Green Hippo Ltd.] Hippotizer to overlap them with a new image-warping feature. We took advantage of that and created the canvas on the main screen,” Clark explains. “Hippo Expresses run the plasma screens because the content was already created; we just access the clip and play it.”
Since Blast II is strictly a touring production, Baldassari's extensive touring background came in handy. He knew that he needed to make sure the show looked stunning, could tour easily, and maintain consistency from city to city. To that end, he found himself relying heavily on a few key pieces of equipment — 22 sections of Tomcat's Swing Wing truss, 54 Vari-Lite VL2500s, and 36 VL3000 automated fixtures. The LD chose this equipment based on his own design philosophy: “It is much better to do less really well than do too much, and none of it looks good.”
It occurred to Baldassari that, for any tour, a lot of what is being carried around is simply air: air inside the boxes containing the fixtures and cable, air inside the pieces of truss, power supplies, etc. This is why he chose the Swing Wing because the fixtures, cabling, wires, etc. all travel within the truss. In other words, the truss is the travel case. With this trussing system, Baldassari says the majority of the rig is up and ready to go in an hour and a half because there are no loose lights to hang. Actually, there are only 12 total fixtures that need to be hung; the rest are pre-mounted in the trussing or the custom dance towers built by 4Wall.
Aside from the Tomcat trussing and the Vari-Lites, Baldassari also has Martin MAC 250 Entours, MAC 300 Washes, a host of ETC Source Four ellipsoidals and PARs, over 60 Wybron Coloram II scrollers, and a control system comprised of Flying Pig Systems Wholehog 2 consoles, Overdrives, and a Remote Focus Unit. There is also a complement of Color Kinetics LED fixtures throughout the show, almost exclusively within the trussing and scenery.
Baldassari mounted ColorBurst® 4s within drum walls which utilize City Theatrical's WDS Wireless Data System and are powered by CT's PDS-375-TRBs with built-in wireless receivers. Color Kinetics' iColor Coves® with PDS-50 LED power supplies with the WDS receivers are installed in gauze-like “bed nets” worn and carried by performers. As they proceed on stage, they are lit in green, but as they play, their nets turn orange and then back to green once they are finished. There is also a very unique gong drum with a perimeter lit with Neo-Flex™ LED Tube controlled by a battery powered City Theatrical WDS Personal Dimmer™.
City Theatrical also custom built what Baldassari calls “Z sticks,” a special baton in the shape of a Z embedded with chasing LED circuits. “As we pull into black, they're being spun so fast by the performers that, due to retina retention, they suddenly look solid, just like a kid's toy,” Baldassari says.
While the history of theatrical sequels has been bleak — Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public, Bring Back Birdie, Annie 2 — Blast II promises to blaze a new path with a tried and true method combined with a complete rethinking, which will undoubtedly win many fans as the show continues touring Japan through Halloween.
The former managing editor of Lighting Dimensions, Entertainment Design, and Live Design, Mark A. Newman now finds himself on the Gulf Coast as editor of Southern Breeze magazine, where he can wear shorts and sandals to work.
Blast II! Equipment and Personnel
Mike Baldassari, MIKE-O-MATIC
Industries Moving Light Programmer:
Assistant Lighting Designer:
Todd Davis Master
Lighting Equipment Vendor:
4Wall - New York
Control & Dimming
1 Flying Pig Systems Wholehog 2
1 Wholehog 2 Backup/Slave
3 Wholehog 2 Overdrive
1 Wholehog 2 Remote Focus Unit
1 ETC Sensor 96 × 2.4kW Dimmer Rolling Rack
10 Leprecon ULD-360 6 × 600W Dimmer Pack
City Theatrical WDS Personal Dimmer™ and WDS Receivers
22 Tomcat Swing Wing Truss, 10' Sections
2 Custom, Double-Wide, Dance Towers, Black, 21' Tall
4 Custom, Double-Wide, Dance Towers, Black, 14' Tall
54 Vari-Lite VL 2500™ Spot Luminaire
36 Vari-Lite VL 3000™ Spot Luminaire
6 DHA Digital Light Curtain, VNSP with Custom Scrolls
7 Martin MAC 250 Entour
7 Martin MAC 300
6 High End Systems Color Pro
10 ETC Source Four Ellipsoidal 10°, 750W
30 ETC Source Four Ellipsoidal 19°, 750W
12 ETC Source Four Ellipsoidal 26°, 750W
12 ETC Source Four Ellipsoidal 36°, 750W
12 ETC Source Four PAR NSP, 750W
12 ETC Source Four PAR MFL, 750W
64 Wybron Coloram II Scroller
8 Martin Atomic 3000 Strobe
6 Wildfire Blacklight
24 Color Kinetics Color Blast® 6 with 23° Lens
4 Color Kinetics Color Blast® 12 with 10° Lens
16 Color Kinetics ColorBurst® 4
City Theatrical PDS-375 TR™, PDS-375-TRB™, and PDS-750 TR™ Power Supplies
Smoke & Haze
2 High End Systems F-100 Fogger with DMX Interface
4 MDG Atmosphere Haze Generator with DMX Interface
4 Performance Solutions Twister II Fan
2 24" Box Fan, Black