It would be all too easy to dismiss Blue Man Group as a trivial, Cirque du Soleil-style business model, that incidentally provides entertainment on the way to profit. I almost did. My expectations weren’t especially high.
At its core are the three founders — Chris Wink, Matt Goldman and Phil Stanton — who started it in 1987. So it’s taken a long time for its blue tentacles to reach down under. And it’s a hard act to pin down, since it’s an odd collision between avant-garde performance art and cynical commercialism. What began off-Broadway is now mainstream, with campuses in New York, Boston, Chicago, Las Vegas, Berlin and Orlando. Franchising tends to cross swords with artistic integrity, at least notionally, which makes the phenomenon all the more intriguing.
By a serendipitous course of events (and following a review by influential critic Stephen Holden, not to mention numerous awards), the three principals hooked-up with inventor and musician Jimmy Cook; a kind of amateur nutty professor, from what I gather. Although he’s since left the group, his contributions and legacy would seem to be significant: there are convoluted contraptions made from white plastic plumbing pipe, struck with paddles over the open ends, that suffice as semi-legitimate, tuned instruments; a kind of hybrid of a vibraphone and xylophone, or something.
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When augmented by drummers on more traditional percussion, as well as a thrashing electric guitar, belting out power chords, amplified through a massive PA, the sound is like a Challenger spacecraft taking off; the woofers are pumping so much air, it almost blows your clothes off.
The show got underway with the trio of blue men stationed in front of three drums, on which one beats out a rhythm. Coyly, the others produce rage bottles of coloured paint, which they proceed to pour onto the drum heads, making for a splish-splashing kaleidoscope. It’s at this moment we know why the first couple of rows have ponchos. From this to the consistently non-plussed, wide-eyed men playing catch; but not in any conventional sense. It’s another children’s party game. This time, one of the benign three stooges produces a large bag of marshmallows. He throws one into the open mouth of a colleague, far across the stage. Caught successfully, he ventures another and another and another. We lose count and, every time, the catcher catches. Now, he has to wedge the sticky, pliable sweet further and further into his mouth. The other blue man doesn’t catch marshmallows, but paintballs; small condoms of colour, which he spits onto a canvas. He then spins the canvas, producing quite an impressive spatter painting. Being generous of spirit, the blue men bestow these gifts upon the audience. The marshmallows, in case you’re wondering, or need to know, are regurgitated into a snowy peak of wobbling confection, which is then placed in a woman’s bag.
There’s no denying the show relies heavily on (more or less) state-of-the-art audiovisual technology, which has given rise to some pointed conceits, such as three giant pseudo-iPhones descending from the rigging. The mock apps installed thereon provided the excuse for a series of quite clever illusions: old-school magic, essentially, with a high-tech, digital makeover. This excerpt is representative of BMG‘s penchant for elegantly simple entertainment, which is practically guaranteed to appeal to children of all ages; eight to eighty, kind of thing. In that sense, it occupies a similar space to Disney. It’s amazing how much you can milk three blue men eating crunchy nut cornflakes, for example, simply by amplifying their mastication. A little later, a compliant young woman was selected from the audience, sitting down to a last supper-style dinner table. After some gently romantic overtures by one of the trio, Twinkies were produced and much play was made of the difficulty the blue men had in unwrapping them. Eventually, the young woman did the honours, making for a moment even sweeter than the cloying American treats.
The bemused looks on the faces of the blue men largely explains their appeal: they are like children themselves; alien beings making discoveries and reticently expressing their surprise, like ET, or a puppy. Another explanation is the kinship they have to, say, stars of the silent movie era: in their taciturnity is affecting in a not dissimilar way to The Tramp’s. And the fact that one of the highlights of the show came at the end, when huge beachballs were launched into the audience, along with streamers, points to how little we really need to smile, laugh and feel good.
There’ll be those that will condemn BMG for its lack of sophistication and its borrowed interest. But finding the right balance in this act is no less difficult than for the tightrope walker and I, for one, believe there’s room for this alongside more challenging work.
There’s nothing wrong with being a kid again, for an evening, here or there. We can have a little marshmallow, now and then, in between our pulled pork, squid ink noodles and New York cheesecake with blackberry coulis. Can’t we?
The details: Blue Man Group plays the Lyric Theatre until October 6 — tickets via Ticketmaster. The show travels to Perth on October 11 and Melbourne on November 8 — more information on the show’s website.