Digging Blue Man Group’s high-tech follies

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Blue Man Group, the cobalt-blue trio of performance artists, mess makers and drummer, finally makes its San Francisco debut at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the SHN season. Above photo by Ken Howard. Photo below by Paul Kolnik.

In many ways, Blue Man Group is the modern equivalent of The Ziegfeld Follies — a lot of razzle-dazzle flash and sound, entertainment for its own sake. Instead of gorgeous gals with gams up to here, you get three bald dudes covered in shiny blue paint. And rather than singing and dancing, you get a thumping rock score, concert-style lighting and performance art on a grand, vaudevillian scale.

After more than 20 years of sit-down productions in New York, Chicago, Orlando and other such bustling tourist hubs, Blue Man is finally on tour and lands at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre as part of the SHN season.

The show, created by BMG originators Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton and Chris Wink entails about 90 minutes of multimedia onslaught, not to mention projectile gelatin, Twinkies, Cap’n Crunch cereal and oozing foodstuffs of mysterious origin. The Blue Men make music on drums of varying sizes, on PVC tubing and on anything they can bang on (while being accompanied by a six-piece band outfitted like extras in Tron).

There’s just something primal and appealing about three guys banging on drums. Add in splashes of colored water, and you have low-key spectacle that adds to the enjoyment. And enjoyment is really what this enterprise is all about.

The music is actually the most mesmerizing part of the show, though the visuals – on small LED screens and one giant, stage-sized LED screen – can be quite captivating (projection design by Caryl Glaab and BMG).

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The audience-interaction segments are cute in a Vegas-y kind of way, and the finale, which is akin to a Burning Man rave minus the salt flats, drugs and naked people, is a real hoot. In the original sit-down shows, the big finish involved giant reams of paper that ended up covering the entire orchestra of the theater. Given the eco-minded nature of audiences these days, the use of so much paper eight times a week seemed excessive, so a new ending, with giant glowing balls and only a minimum of paper has been devised.

I loved BMG when I saw them perform in Chicago nearly 15 years ago. I was appropriately dazzled and distracted. I did not enjoy the BMG experience in Las Vegas three years ago because I was simply bored by the overblown theatrics.

This touring version is somewhere in between, but far more enjoyable than Vegas. And it’s especially nice to experience a show that truly fills the cavernous Golden Gate and feels suited to its Spartan interior.

I would love it if, one day, BMG moved beyond its techno-follies parameters and deigned to tell some kind of story. With so many theatrical and musical skills at hand, it would be nice to add narrative to the Blue Man Group mix.

[bonus interview]
I talked with Blue Man Group co-founder Phil Stanton for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.


Blue Man Group continues through June 19 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30 to $200. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

Live from Las Vegas: `Blue Man Group’

Second night of the Theater Dogs Vegas adventure took us to Blue Man Group at the Venetian next door, and I have to say, I wasn’t overly impressed. Can a Vegas show full of so many bells and whistles really be boring?

Maybe boring is too strong a word, but there are dull stretches in this nearly 100-minute show involving the three blue men of the title wandering into the audience and not doing much while video cameras capture their so-called exploits. During a lengthy audience participation moment (the blond woman dragged up on stage the night we were there was a tremendous good sport and even at the Twinkie Light placed before her), the comedy proceeded to diminishing returns.

Unlike Stomp, where the message is simple and clear, (rhythm good, music everywhere), Blue Man belies its performance art roots and is sorty of brainy, obtuse and downright bizarre. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its elements of humor (of the silent movie variety as the performers utter not a word, though there is narration about plumbing, the interior of the eye and other assorted oddities). Shoving marshmallows into one’s mouth, chomping on Cap’n Crunch cereal, spewing edible grossness from the valve in one’s chest, splashing about in colored water — it’s all vaguely amusing without ever being involving.

The big finale, with the avalanche of paper moving from the back of the theater to the stage is fun, and with the big tubes and wires twirling above the audience and the seven-piece band raging away, recalls a rave minus the mind-altering substances.

I kept waiting for the show to get into gear and show us something really good, but that moment, when it finally arrived, was brief and didn’t even involve the bald blue men in the black suites. The dazzling moment in this show is a piece of live animation involving spinning tables full of figures that, while spinning under strobe lights, appear to be doing a primitive dance.

A bit about a male volunteer pulled from the audience and turned, unceremoniously, upside down and flung, paint-covered, at a blank canvas, feels phony and totally unnecessary.

Blue Man Group certainly succeeds in bringing a little New York avant garde to the Vegas masses (and our Friday-night audience seemed to eat it up), but I’d rather see the high art of Cirque du Soleil or the low art of Stomp. Or, really, what I’d like while I’m in Vegas, is to see Donn Arden’s Jubilee! again. As the billboards say, the venerable early ’80s showgirl spectacular is “the reasons rhinestones were invented.” Give me a cheesy soundtrack, feathers, sparkles, Bob Mackie costumes and the sinking of the Titanic any day. You can keep your blue guys.

For information about Blue Man Group in Las Vegas visit www.blueman.com.