As far as live acts go, the Blue Man Group would seem to fall somewhere between a ‘90s Lollapalooza side stage oddity and an indisputably bitchin’ laser show. Stemming from this altogether radical branch of entertainment, the resulting performance is a cavalcade of flashing lights, pulsating rhythms, and perhaps most surprisingly, hearty laughs.
To describe the BMG, however, is not without its pitfalls. The very idea of watching three bald men, clad entirely in black, beat on tubes for any length of time is most assuredly not an easy sell. Simply adding that their skin is painted entirely blue may not exactly result in the desired enticing effect. It is rather amazing to find, then, that not only do they succeed in squeezing that rather basic (and yes, somewhat nutty) premise for all it’s worth, but that they also manage to wield enough exotic instruments and dazzling visuals to keep the proceedings interesting for nearly two hours.
It goes without saying that any night spent with a collective known as the Blue Man Group will only be as good as its Blue Men. Fortunately, the three on hand for the evening were more than capable. With a rotating roster of six for this run, the part requires a very specific set of skills and is thankless in its anonymity. (Not a lot of casting directors are likely to catch a performance and exclaim, “I must have that blue man!”) Wearing a mask of paint, no doubt though, can be downright liberating and, coupled with all of the other enjoyable feats the performers take on, it’s readily apparent why so many of them have been touring for years. Once a blue man, always a blue man.
Unexpectedly, most of the show’s first half was largely comedic in nature, eschewing the musical components that have been a large part of their appeal in favour of what were essentially silent sketches. Granted, there is something already inherently funny about a trio this downright bizarre, but the sheer amount of laughs wrung out of the concept is astounding. An early piece found the men drumming neon paint onto a canvas and showcasing a superior ability to catch an inordinate number of marshmallows in their mouths. Somehow, this was transformed into an amusing (if somewhat thin) commentary on art. More importantly, though, it lead to a poor woman getting a giant tower of soggy, masticated marshmallows in her purse.
Audience participation played a key part in generating the hilarity for a few segments. There may be nothing more terrifying in this world than one of the large Blue Men skulking down the aisle towards you with a curious expression on his face, as if seeking the next specimen in some diabolical experiment. A young lady was selected to be part of a very special dinner of Twinkies with the group, and if this sounds only slightly ridiculous in concept, the sight of the three of them sitting at a table with a smartly attired woman in such a formal setting is about as far as you can place a fish out of water. In fact, it should be noted just how exponentially funnier everything becomes because of the blue factor. Faced with the constraint of not being able to talk, the bright whites of their wide eyes are forced to do all of the heavy lifting and a single deadpan look serves admirably as a punch line on many occasions. Though this dinner may have run on a little long, it still remained a highlight of the evening.
The latter half of the program was more in line with the wild musical antics we’ve come to associate with the group. Backed by a largely unseen host of musicians, the trio drummed and banged away on a plethora of instruments not likely to be played in many other venues. From the drumbone (a series of interconnected tubes that can be hit with sticks in addition to being lengthened and shortened to change pitches) to the tubulum (a collection of PVC pipes that are struck with paddles and resonate at different frequencies based on their lengths), the emerging sounds were both melodic and wholly unique. By the time the Blue Men emerged wearing backpack tubulums (for portability of course), it was hard not to imagine that the entire act was one that had been dreamed up by either Dr. Seuss or Willy Wonka. The tunes hammered out on these quirky musical innovations ranged from longer original pieces showcasing considerable range to snippets of popular songs from the likes of Ozzy Osbourne and Lady Gaga. Sadly, there was nary a ploogle or three-nozzled bloozer to be heard.
Accentuating the aural experience is a full-on feast for the eyes. Though the Blue Men seem to be perpetually and comically confounded by the wonders of technology, they are nonetheless helplessly surrounded by it. Early on, they are confronted by GiPads (as in ginormous), and begin to experiment with their images on the screens, emerging from behind them, in a nice bit of trickery, with various silly outfits and props. Throughout, there is a preoccupation with the perception of the human eye, best exemplified in a brief tutorial and display of animation that subsequently evolves (or devolves, depending on the person) into a group dance party. Aside from that, an expected amount of strobe lighting is on display here with enough pervasive dashes of neon to recall Batman Forever. Though effective, the overall effect can also be somewhat overwhelming. The orgiastic conclusion is, as it should be, an explosion of confetti and streamers, and you would be forgiven for looking around at the giant balls bouncing around the theatre and thinking that you were at a Flaming Lips show.
Formed in 1987 by Chris Wink, Matt Goldman, and Phil Stanton, it is difficult to believe that such an idea would have endured the way it has. What if the men had been green? Would the gimmick have caught on the same way? Impossible to say, but it is a testament to the originality and sheer audacity of the concept that it has remained a cultural touchstone for so long. Aided by appearances on Scrubs and, of course, the great Tobias Funke, the Blue Man Group continues to occupy a space with but a few peers.
Photos by Paul Kolnik and courtesy of Mirvish Productions.