Described as “a combination of theatre, vaudeville, rock concert, science, technology and crazy multi-media dance concert all wrapped up together,” Blue Man Group is headed for the Memorial Auditorium on Thursday (July 26). The show, featuring three blue-hued child-men, has gained an international reputation for its techno-driven visual, physical and aural assault. (Ear plugs, as well as protective rain gear for those in the first few rows, are provided.)
The three players—it’s always been three to allow for an odd man out within the group— are Laurel and Hardy as a trio. Two take turns playing Hardy to the third man’s hapless Laurel—out of synch and a beat behind. Not a word is spoken throughout the show; there’s no need. Their body language, eyes—magnified on a massive video backdrop—and synth-driven percussion fill in the details.
Standing in front of a huge percussion-triggered synthesizer, the three principals spend much of the show hammering out three-part tattoos, backed by a four-piece band behind the curtain. Their objective is to puncture the pomp and pretension of an arena rock show, but like all parodists they’re always in danger of becoming what they set out to lampoon. Yet judging from the innumerable You Tube excerpts of their shows (including the current one which is, according to Blue Man Kirk Massey, almost 50 percent new material) their anonymity has freed them from temptations such as self-indulgent rock-star-style posturing even as much of their show sets the stage for it.
The essential conceit of the show is that each member of the Smurf-skinned trio is an impressionable alien looking for a way to fit in. Each one is Everyman perplexed by the dizzying pace of technologically driven change. In their current show, the three face an enormous touch screen. Like exploring children they enter the screen, but before they do one Blue Man’s eyes are projected onto the backdrop watching and reacting to his colleague’s confusion. It’s one example of how often they blur the line between watcher and watched, audience and players, throughout the show.
“The Blue Men shows don’t have the traditional fourth wall,” said Massey. “They’re trying to connect with the audience that’s there that night.”
By not uttering a word they’re able to project their reactions without having to explain them. Their reactions are almost always mystification. According to Massey, the Blue Men behave as we all do when confronted with a culture and language we don’t understand. For them, he said, “It’s exploring how different cultures communicate with each other.”
From its inception in New York City in the 1990s, the show’s central thesis has been alienation stemming from information overload. But rather than feeling over-informed, most Americans now—like the hapless third Blue Man—feel left out of the loop without information (literally) at their fingertips. In the current show, the Blue Man Group’s attitude toward technology has changed. They are no longer outside the technology looking in, but are inside giant “gi-pads” looking out.
Although that subtext remains in the script it is, as more than one critic has complained, largely subsumed within the aural and visual slapstick of the performance. The three actors expend enormous energy in the 90 minutes they’re on stage. There’s no intermission, the audience has little time to think; they can only react to the seamless concatenation of Vaudeville-style visual gags paced by the racing percussion-driven rock and dance music.
However, at some point in the show a member of the audience is invited onto the stage as a foil for the fun-loving trio. As an emissary from the “real” world, they must feel something akin to Margaret Dumont’s perplexed reactions to Groucho, Chico and Harpo in all those films in which she played their unfortunate foil. But their audience is too sophisticated to be gulled into representing the stilted world of rational adults—and so it’s often the Blue Men who are the victims. The show is timed and tightened to the second, but when one opens the door and lets in the outside world their tightly scripted world collapses.
“Once you dive into that you really have no idea what these people are going to do, so you end up making it up as you go from that point,” said Kirk.
The show is a mash-up of relentless percussive energy of “Stomp” and Gallagher’s messy slapstick schtick with an overlay of weird science. The antic energy and laugh out loud silliness of Blue Man Group plays well with the kid in every one of us.
Blue Man Group
Thursday, July 26
399 McCallie Ave.
Richard Winham is the host and producer of WUTC-FM’s afternoon music program and has observed the Chattanooga music scene for more than 25 years.