Chicago Theater Review: BLUE MAN GROUP (20th Anniversary at Briar Street Theater)

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by Lawrence Bommer on October 13, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


The azure takeover began in 1991. Six years laterBlue Man Group—the company that is a show—debuted in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. 20 years later, now the longest running production in the city, it still plays the Briar Street Theater (which used to be the stable for Marshall Field’s delivery horses). Clearly, in the right hands blue can turn to green.

Part percussive rock concert, part performance art, and part video satire, this fascinating blend of mime and sci-fi, vaudeville and futurism was created by Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton and Chris Wink in 1988. Wearing blue masks to celebrate the end of the 1980s, their impromptu “happening” involved the burning of a Rambo doll along with a piece of the Berlin Wall. Their inspired irreverence impressed MTV’s Kurt Loder: Quickly a subversive disruption grew from the streets to the studios and stages, just as the musical Bounce! evolved from street kids making noise.

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

It continues to confound and delight non-blue audiences (and was bought up this July by the similarly venturesome Cirque du Soleil). The secret of their blue-ish wisdom? Laughter and thought can be BFFs. Plus, the indigo threesome’s amalgam of acrobatic dexterity, mute impassivity, and gentle parody of the audience’s favorite excesses is ever updated: New wizard-worthy tricks add to the potent mix of visual puns, physical stunts and cultural commentary.

Blue Man Group’s invasive, interactive, literally probing triumph is obvious as you enter: The lobby seethes with piping and tubing, conduits leading to hidden hookups, an other-worldly entanglement that only intensifies as you near the stage. Spoofing connectivity without connection, theirs is a tubular world whose pneumatic piping suggests how intricately we’re interconnected, including “interactive plumbing.” But a little creative audience participation really drives home that particular truth.

Over two decades the interchangeable, cobalt-colored zanies have added wizard-worthy tricks to their potent mix of visual puns, physical stunts and cultural commentary. The blue brothers passively spoof all the “matrix”-like techno links that imprison as much as integrate us: They underline—and undermine—our attention-deficit overstimulation by presenting three giant descending “GiPads” which execute some characteristically outsized multitasking with multiple-choice programs to read or not.

Blue Man Group at Briar Street Theatre – Chicago Review by Tony FrankelThe latest edition conjures up an interim 2.5-D universe for emerging duo-dimensional figures. Entering the life-size tablet screens, the Blue Men instantly transform into their supposedly secret selves or digitize themselves into their own action emojis, complete with Jedi Knight-quality light sabers.

From the opening, where a scrolling headline gets the crowd to laugh at their foibles and trains them to scream on cue, you glimpse the sardonic mindset of this trio of non-terrestrial cerulean chums. The same intransigent, transgressive spirit fuels the still-potent acts, such as pounding on giant vats of splashing water, lit in various colors and spraying like fountains from their busy drums; and deftly catching flying marshmallows and masticating them into pop art.

It’s nothing if not interactive: An audience member sitting in the “splash seats” is probed, not anally (as aliens usually prefer), but with an oral scope that pretends to inspect his innards. Another audience member becomes the subject of the Human Paint Brush, his entire body wrapped up, spray-painted and rubbed into art, as a closed-circuit camera shows us all the backstage shenanigans. (This audience member was a work of art in his own right.) A third volunteer is taken on stage and treated to a very bizarre meal of Twinkies that spewed out of her faster than they were ingested.

Appealing to our “outer child,” the 95-minute revue contains the reliable “Rock Concert Etiquette” slideshow in which the audience learns the right cool gestures to indicate their captivation by the stars on stage.

What’s missing, alas, from the current edition is the show’s once rapturous ending involving cascading rolls of toilet paper that rush over the astonished audience. But the new trick of giant illuminated beach balls bouncing around the delighted audience continues to delight.

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

Anyway there’s no arguing with success. Not incidentally, since 1997 the turquoise team has entertained more than 4,600,000 true-blue fans with 10,493 performances, held five autism-friendly performances in collaboration with Autism Speaks, employed 965,365 ponchos and 17,694 boxes of Cap’n Crunch cereal, and, most importantly, awarded $45,000 to emerging artists through two Blue Man Group art competitions.

They must be doing something right, these mute, sapphire visitors from a comedy empire.

Successful as they are, it’s hard not to wonder whether there’s a bald Green Woman Group forming somewhere, ready to unleash their own brand of scatological mockery at the men in blue. But that’s another alien invasion altogether.

photos by Paul Kolnik and Lindsey Best

Blue Man Group
Briar Street Theater, 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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