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‘Blast’ Gone ‘Round the World

Churchill’s annual rock-and-roll revue celebrates global diversity and unity — as well as the Piano Man, country women and the ’80s.

Jeremy Slevin has seen every “Blast from the Past” revue at Winston Churchill High School since he was in fourth grade. Slevin is well known among this year’s 130-member “Blast” cast for his devotion that rivals the most obsessed fantasy baseball player.

“I guess everyone calls me the ‘Blast’ historian,” Slevin said. “I have all the programs at home. … It’s just something that I’ve grown up with.”

These days, Slevin is making the “Blast” history. He’s a Churchill senior, and is a student vocal director and singing solo in a couple of numbers in this year’s “Blast.”

“It doesn’t feel real; it still doesn’t feel like I’m in the ‘Blast,’” Slevin said. Each year, he’ll see that previous “Blast” icons have returned to watch the annual show go on. Senior Shannon O’Connor has an older brother who reached “Blast” icon status, and it keeps her motivated to continue the tradition as a student vocal director.

With all the job demands, O’Connor questions her own sanity at times and takes criticism personally. But she’s been working on “Blast” since September, and she expects the final product will be worthy of all the students’ effort.

“Ever since I saw what my brother did, I’ve seen how high you can go,” O’Connor said. “All these years I’ve been trying to have the same great experience he always had.”

TRADITIONALLY CALLED “Blast from the Past,” Churchill’s annual rock-and-roll music and dance revue is simply “Blast” this year. While there are still some selections from rock’s early days, this year’s Blast also features contemporary country tunes, a Shakira number, and plenty from the ‘80s.

“It’s more ‘Blast’ than ‘Blast from the Past,’” said senior Sara Butters, the company manager. “It’s still all over the ages [but] there’s more of this generation of music.”

“There’s some great music, an eclectic mix of sets you’d expect every year, with an international twist,” Slevin said.

This year’s theme, “Imag1nation” (or “Imagine One Nation”) goes global in scope. It opens with Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” and finishes with a John Lennon-esque vision of global harmony. Along the way are musical and visual stops all around the planet, from Europe to Africa to Asia and North and South America.

“Every year it always evolves,” Slevin said. “This year is certainly costume-heavy.”

That will be clear in numbers like “Rock Me Amadeus,” with performers in wigs and blue suits instantly recognizable as neo-Mozarts. Students perform Toto’s “Africa” in costumes similar to the Broadway “Lion King.”

Scott Selman returns as the “Blast” tech director, which means there will be such three-dimensional staging effects as the Loch Ness Monster, a giant snake and King Kong’s hand scooping up a performer in “Rescue Me.”

WHEN THE BAND features three keyboard/piano players (freshman Andy Jeng and seniors Joyce Garside and Paul Rodgers), it’s the logical course to go heavy with selections from the ‘80s, a time when synthesizers reigned supreme.

During that pop music period, other musicians, especially drummers, temporarily seemed like an endangered species. That’s not a problem in “Blast,” in part because Churchill’s student musicians have leeway to take a bit of license with some of the songs. Rodgers said that some songs get a heavy backbeat that creates a 21st-century techno edge. Celine Dion’s “All by Myself” gets more of the trance treatment, with a part that Rodgers describes as sounding like whales talking to each other.

“We sit there with the CDs, and we have to figure out most of the notes,” Rodgers said. “I never play the same thing the same way twice, which I guess makes them mad.”

“There’s a lot of sweet guitar solos,” said Rodgers. Along with everybody else interviewed, Rodgers is excited about the “Welcome to the Jungle” number, both for the guitar solo and the staging with performers descending on ropes.

Experienced “Blast” performers also have input on the show’s direction and setlist. “By senior year you have more of a role in determining how the show goes,” Slevin said.“That’s what most surprised me when I joined it. If you put your all into it, you can make it so good.”

O’Connor is one of the students who began collaborating with Barillo in September on the songs to be included. For every one that becomes an onstage reality, there are several that never make it past the idea stage. O’Connor once hoped to include Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but that was one that fell by the wayside. “That would have been awesome,” O’Connor said.

Recent “Blast” productions have featured a “Diva” section, highlighting songs from a single performer like Madonna. In a bit of a twist, this year’s “Blast” features the songs of a male performer, Billy Joel (a “Divo” section, not to be confused with a Devo section). There’s enough male vocal talent to pull it off this year, said Slevin. “I don’t think we could have done it every year,” he said.

Female vocalists rule in a multi-artist Country section this year. Butters solos on Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman,” and O’Connor solos on Shania Twain’s “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under.”

EVEN SENIORITIS fades away when “Blast” looms ahead. “I’m a second-semester senior — the only reason I go to school is ‘Blast,’” Butters said. “It give you something you can focus on … everyone’s here because they want to be.”

Like Butters, O’Connor and Slevin, performers know how integral “Blast” is to Churchill tradition, and this keeps them all driven to try and outdo previous year’s performances. “I don’t know if there’s anything else that gets so many people involved,” Rodgers said.

AROUND THE WORLD

This year’s “Blast” theme, “Imag1nation” (“Imagine One Nation”) goes around the world in musical content, costume and stage design. Most songs fall under a theme umbrella, and below are some of the themes that Churchill’s students will perform:

* Classical – “Rock Me Amadeus” by Falco, “Roll Over Beethoven” by Chuck Berry

* Brit Wit – “Henry the VIII” by Herman’s Hermits, “In a Big Country” by Big Country, “Spice Up Your Life” by the Spice Girls

* Serengeti – “Africa” by Toto, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by Solomon Linda

* USA (Country) – “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under” by Shania Twain, “Redneck Woman” by Gretchen Wilson

* Latin – “Don’t Bother” by Shakira

* Asian – “One Night in Bangkok” by Murray Head, “Mr. Roboto” by Styx, “China Girl” by David Bowie

* Amazon – “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns ‘N’ Roses

* World Told by Billy Joel – “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” “This Night,” “When in Rome”