Theater Review: Blue Man Group — A Sugar High, Spray-Painted Blue
By Robert Israel
The “new” version of Blue Man Group is all mayhem, all the time.
Blue Man Group, at the Charles Playhouse, 74 Warrenton St., Boston, an open run.
Blue Man Group is back in Boston. They are holding forth at the (since 2011) revamped Charles Playhouse, a venerable backstreet house hidden behind the Shubert Theatre that they once commandeered for well-over two decades (beginning in 1995). They are being billed as presenting “new original material,” but it’s the same as the “old” material, only the proceedings are more advanced technologically, and thus, more fast paced, with extra helpings of noise and razzle-dazzle (rather than anything resembling soulfulness) at its core.
The Blue Men (three bald males who wear dark suits and sport blue painted faces) are spunkadelic, lithe, bust-a-move performers. Their gymnastic skills are often a marvel to behold as are their various excursions into percussion and mime. The trio are accompanied by the production’s own rock band (who perform in an orchestra loft rather than in a pit, and are all masked, like the gimmicky band Los Straitjackets, complete with Halloween masks and Day-Glo shirts), as well as a cadre of technologists who assist from the wings sporting video cameras and other props. The playhouse is equipped with mini-Jumbo Thon screens and other video and lighting devices that give the place a Tilt-a-Whirl amusement park feeling.
A bit of back story: According to an “oral history” that appeared in Vulture magazine, the original Blue Man troupe was street edgy when it premiered in NYC in the late ’80s/early ’90s. They became wildly successful, purchasing their own house, the Astor Place Theatre, in lower Manhattan, where Blue Man Group still performs today. In 1995 they ventured out as a franchise to other cities, including Boston. The originators sold the concept out — lock, stock and buckets of paint — to the Circe de Soleil group for a whopping eight figure sum. The Canadian institution has been managing the franchise ever since, in the States and overseas. Millions of theatergoers seek them out every year.
And it’s easy to see why. There is much to take delight in, all at a decibel level that can probably be heard echoing through Boston Common. I particularly enjoyed watching the performers navigate their way through the theater, snaking throughout the audience by gingerly walking on the tops of the seats. The show places a heavy emphasis on audience participation; much is made of choosing audience members to join The Blues onstage for sundry antics (no spoilers will be divulged here). Yes, it’s gimmicky. But it’s all in good fun. Some audience members come hoping to be chosen (like contestants in daytime television game shows). Those seated in the first five or so rows are given ponchos, (lest they get drenched with various gooey substances). The Blue Men are also adept at handling light sabers — and other found objects — that emit eerie sounds. True to the original production, the trio pound on drums doused with various colored paints. The kaleidoscopic vision becomes downright hypnotic: the video screens pulsate with colors as the Blue Men pound on these drums. But then, like playing the game Whack-a-Mole, the excitement eventually wanes and the experience becomes tiresome.
The emergence of fatigue leads to what is missing from the “new” version of this show: a sense of innocence. As I recall, from attending a performance in what seems like a lifetime ago, is that the Blue Men of yore exhibited more of a sense of wonder. There were dramatic expressions of child-like discovery as they examined with intense curiosity, tubes and other plastic devices, exploring them in scenes that resembled how the apes behaved in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. What are these strange devices and how do they work? That attempt to pull us in, to suggest these are ‘creatures from another world,’ is pretty much gone. The Blue Men are there to amuse themselves and us. That’s the script. They just get to it. It’s all mayhem, all the time. Part of the fun of attending a techno circus-y show like this is to be lured into a bright and shiny world festooned with unpredictable sound and light and computer-generated imagery. But that doesn’t happen. All too often the Blues start pounding on their instruments — which resemble plastic xylophones — and the rock band in the loft picks up the rhythm. What we get is a choreographed product that is short on surprises.
Welcome to the “new” Blue Man Group, which, like the old Blue Man Group, brings Las Vegas to Beantown. You are left with a sugar high, spray-painted blue.
Robert Israel, an Arts Fuse contributor since 2013, can be reached at email@example.com.