Chicago Theater Review: BLUE MAN GROUP (Briar Street Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on April 21, 2012

in Theater-Chicago

FEELING A LITTLE BLUE

In 1992, a friend insisted that we see Blue Man Group: Tubes at the tiny, cramped Astor Place Theatre in New York City. At the time, people were calling it a new generation of performance art, largely because it lacked the self-serving air of attention-seeking SoHo artists. To us, it was a revelation that defied description. Three childlike, emotionless men with bald, cobalt-blue heads performed a number Blue Man Group at Briar Street Theatre – Chicago Review by Tony Frankelof pieces that commented on community and communication, even though the men never spoke. As I look back on it, these guys were the precursor to Teletubbies: harmless, gentle souls who wanted nothing more than to be friends who remind us to be aware of wonder. The souls I encountered in the East Village theater just happened to be great percussionists who excelled at the delightfully universal art form of silent film-style comedy.

I always saw the show in my annual pilgrimage to NYC because, as one reviewer put it, the marshmallows and balls of paint they catch in their mouths and spit out as art brought an element of untrammeled infantile sensuality, the pre-verbal joy of goo and finger painting, to the theater. With original music, deadpan sophistication and the biggest mess since the cafeteria scene in Animal House, Blue Man reduced the late 20th century to a post-modern romp in a lunatic nursery school.

Blue Man Group at Briar Street Theatre – Chicago Review by Tony Frankel

It was simple, sweet and, because of its prescient observations about the then nascent age of information overload, slightly spooky. Even the food they ate and played with in their act—marshmallows, Cap’n Crunch and Twinkies—sardonically reminded us that the 80s cemented America as a junk food nation. During repeat visits wherein I dragged countless friends to see this entertainment, any sense of boredom with the familiar was eradicated by passing around a joint before the show. It was heavenly to party with a theater full of strangers, bouncing beach balls amidst innumerable unfurled rolls of paper, and swaying to an infectiously original rock score.

Blue Man Group at Briar Street Theatre – Chicago Review by Tony FrankelBut that was then. Now, as tens of millions of people around the world know, Blue Man Group has become an entertainment conglomerate in a variety of formats. From Vegas to Tokyo, you can catch the trio in rock concert arena tours and headlining on Norwegian Cruise Lines—“the Official Cruise Line of Blue Man Group.” It has been fifteen years since my last occasion with the primary-colored beings in NYC, so it was time to revisit them, only this time in Chicago, where the trio has performed their shenanigans at the Briar Street Theatre since 1997.

Blue Man Group at Briar Street Theatre – Chicago Review by Tony Frankel

The news is this: even with some of the same funny skits and an updated commentary on our high-tech social media age (they use giant “GiPad” cell phones instead of poster board to display their trademark satirical messages), Blue Man Group has gone the way of Cirque du Soleil, which also became a corporation that got so big they lost the soul of the sweet circus-style street performers that spawned Cirque in the first place. It’s ironic that Blue Man still makes fun of our technological addiction when it has itself become a machine.

Blue Man Group at Briar Street Theatre – Chicago Review by Tony FrankelFrom the start, this Blue Man lost control of their audience, who were more interested in partying than respecting the performers. Granted, it was a young matinee audience, but for the first half-hour, there was a disconnection between the actual show and the bratty, disrespectful, cat-calling spectators. It is an understatement to say that the confrontation between noisy spectators and others trying to shush them was like nails on a chalkboard. The show may have been updated (it’s now referred to as “Tubes/Rewired/NowMoreWow”), but it was shocking to see how little the show has been transformed for a bigger space. Sure, there are much bigger balls bouncing on the crowd, but bigger isn’t better, it’s just bigger (except the phenomenal, pumped-up sound, which managed to be rock concert level but without ear-splitting disturbance). Without a sense of intimacy, the show now feels like a series of skits waiting for something to happen. Laughter and, to a great extent, a sense of wonder still exists, but I’m sad that the whole shebang ends up being a discouraging and somewhat enervating experience. It has evolved from performance art to amusement park.

Blue Man Group at Briar Street Theatre – Chicago Review by Tony Frankel

I have nothing against a party, but I certainly don’t remember the Blue Boys actually instructing its audience in the ways of rock concert movement. The original show elated the spirits of all ages; now, it seems geared towards an adolescent crowd. To be fair, the inclusion of audience members in the show still works, and the show is not without its charm and very funny, invigorating moments. But I go to theater to feel something, too—to be moved, touched, stimulated or inspired. Hence, when the giant cell phones displayed disconcerting communiques which validated the death of literature and the demise of the art of communication, the technology-ridden audience screamed with delight. The frightening accuracy of the messages simply didn’t land on them. As such, I was deeply disturbed. For that, Blue Man Group, I thank you.photos by Paul Kolnik

Blue Man Group
Briar Street Theatre, 3133 N. Halsted
open run
for tickets, call 773.348.4000 or visit Blue Man Chicago

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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