I hadn't seen Blue Man Group in years — decades, actually — so an invitation to the post-lockdown reopening of the iconic show that made its Chicago debut in 1997 was irresistible.
My first impression was that the audience was really primed for the three bald, cobalt-blue men (Tom Galassi, Callum Grant and Gareth Hinsley for the opening) with their fixed stares, expressionless faces and unique blend of comedy, music and mayhem that both pokes fun at our culture and embraces it. Patrons, who were frisked at the door like for a rock concert, were shouting approval and applauding favorite routines even before they started, as if they had seen them many times before and couldn't wait to see them again.
When the Blue Men descended into the audience looking for volunteers — in a rather menacing manner that involved climbing over chairs — scores of people raised their hands hoping to be called upon. Those selected for three onstage routines were all women. The one enlisted to help play an instrument made of metal balls was especially spirited; the two involved in a mock wedding with handcuffs (don't ask!) didn't have a clue what to do, so the sketch was only mildly amusing. The pre-show digital signs instructing us to do things like wish a specific audience member happy birthday or congratulate another just for making it to the theater also got an enthusiastic response.
My second thought was how much Blue Man Group has changed over the years — and how much it hasn't. When it started in New York in 1991, it was just a few guys with some imaginative avant-garde ideas. Now it's a brand owned and operated by Cirque du Soleil Entertainment Group with outposts in Boston and Las Vegas as well as Chicago and lots of touring productions.
The content of the 90-minute performance has evolved over time but hasn't been radically altered. The pandemic has dictated some tweaks, such as the use of face shields for anything involving audience participation and the substitution of a Blue Man for an audience member in the fake endoscopy bit. No longer is the spray-painted volunteer taken backstage and suspended upside down, either. Perhaps most noticeably, the rolls of toilet paper engulfing us in the finale have been replaced by loads of white streamers released from the ceiling, perhaps a nod to decreasing waste as much as Covid-19.
There also seems to be a greater reliance on technology than I recall, with multiple mounted screens used for colorful displays accompanying some of the music. Pop culture pokes now include several references to selfies, with instructions on when it is and is not okay to take them, something that wasn't an issue before smartphones were ubiquitous or even available.
Of course, some things probably will never change, among them the combination of loud drumming and splashing paint that sends volcanoes of color high into the air and out over the first few rows of the audience (provided with rain capes). These paints, squeezed from plastic bottles like those used for mustard (but bigger), also figure in the on-the-spot creation of paintings, a sly commentary on the art world. Similarly, the scores of marshmallows tossed by one Blue Man into the mouth of another are transformed into a lumpen sculpture, and a tag of $5,000 is tacked onto it.
While much of the music is very loud — a three-piece on-stage rock band (Jeff Quay, Graham McLachlan and Mike Burns at the opening) augments the drumming — my favorite pieces involved a long invented instrument consisting of what looked like glass tubes played with paddles. Each Blue Man had two, and they made some lovely melodies together, though the noise level soon reached a crescendo. In another number, some PVC piping was put to good musical use. The rock concert theme was augmented on the video screens by little abstract men demonstrating half-a-dozen rock concert moves for us to imitate.
Blue Man Group isn't the phenomenon it once was, but the wordless trio still sets the bar for interactive theater as they conjure up excited children playing with new toys. The audience clearly gets this, and laps it up. For me, once every decade or so is enough.
By the way, if you ever wanted to be a Blue Man, the website mentions auditions.