Painting the Town Blue: A Review of Blue Man Group’s Toronto Summer Show

Blue Man Group - Credit: Paul Kolnik (via Cadence Canada Magazine)

Blue Man Group - Credit: Paul Kolnik (via Cadence Canada Magazine)

Even if you’ve never seen them, chances are you’ve heard of them. When I was attempting to describe to a friend the show I had the chance to see on July 20 at the Princess of Wales Theatre, it was only when I googled “Blue Man Group” on my Blackberry and showed him an image of the unmistakeable blue-skinned, bald-headed trio that his eyes lit up in recognition and he said, “Oh, I know them!”

The Blue Man Group has become as ubiquitous as Cirque du Soleil, and for good reason. Their combination of art, multimedia, theatrics, music, and cheeky social commentary have made it the kind of show where, when people say you have to see it to get it, that isn’t just a lazy description. That being said, a Blue Man performance is more than a show – it truly is a visual, aural, sensory, multimedia experience, and if you’re lucky, you get to be a part of it, too.

One of the unique things about Blue Man Group is the highly interactive element to their show, an aspect which keeps it from being merely theatre. Wednesday night’s performance at the Mirvish-owned Princess of Wales Theatre was packed to the rafters with an eager, expectant crowd, and a little way into the show, the three Blue Men dispersed into the audience, an unobtrusive cameraman projecting their movements onto a screen onstage, and proceeded to incorporate randomly selected audience members into the show.

There was the lady about eight rows from the front whose Toblerone bar was appropriated, only to be broken in pieces and given to another gentleman in the audience, who was then encouraged to toss the pieces into the mouth of one of the Blue Men, standing at least eight feet away. He caught them every time.

Then there was the unfortunate couple who came in about twenty minutes into the show, led by an usher down the aisle right as the antics on stage morphed into a latecomer’s welcome, with one of the Blue Men suddenly clad in a Flavor Flav Viking helmet and giant clock pendant, and a disembodied voice singing a “You’re late!” to a techno beat. All the while, a camera tracked their laughingly red-faced walk of shame on the screen hanging over the stage, to the laughter and applause of the rest of the audience, many of whom must have been thinking, as I was, “Thank goodness that wasn’t me!!”

The next audience member to be sucked into the Blue Man universe was a bashful, laughing young woman in the “poncho section” of the auditorium (the first three rows – also known as the most-likely-to-get-splattered section…hence the rain ponchos handed out ahead of time!). She was so shy that for the first couple of minutes she couldn’t even look as the three Blue Men turned their disarmingly wide, curious gazes (not to mention the camera lens showing the rest of the audience what was going on) on her and her laughing boyfriend sitting beside her.

When they invited her up to a dining table on stage for an elegant meal (of Twinkies), at first she shook her head, laughing, but then allowed herself to be led up on stage as their “feast guest”. What was probably most fascinating was that as shy as she appeared at first, it wasn’t long before the Blue Men’s infectious energy had her playing along, and they in turn began to take their cues from her performance, so to speak.

The great thing about Blue Man Group is that there is absolutely no dialogue in the show from the Blue Men themselves. This makes it extremely accessible to anyone of any age group, there are no language barriers (they have long running shows in Berlin and Tokyo, among other cities), and it makes it that much more fascinating that they are able to get meaning across to wide varieties of audiences simply by using their wildly expressive facial features, visceral, genre-bending music and transcendent visuals.

One incredible aspect of this show is how the Blue Man Group uses massive amounts of audience interaction to influence the direction of the show, yet it is still within a tightly choreographed framework where even with the “unskilled audience member” factor, all of their cues are unfailingly spot on. This is only one reason why the show has been so massively successful, ever since its inception in New York, in 1987, by founders Chris Wink, Matt Goldman and Phil Stanton, the original three Blue Men.

Another reason for the show’s continued popularity is probably the Blue Man Group’s constant evolution in terms of how their show’s themes relate to contemporary issues like information overload and the warp-speed advancement of technology; in one sequence they are presented with three, ten-foot-slab touch screen “GiPads”, which they approach with the awe-filled curiousity and wonder of the bone-clutching apes encountering the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. They then proceed to open up the onboard libraries and flip the pages on three different e-books simultaneously, a reading challenge easily taken on by anyone who has grown up in the generation of ADD-media saturation…like yours truly.

Beyond the humour, though, it is an incisive commentary on information overload in today’s society, just one of many sharply funny observations of societal norms and the absurdity of many of them when seen from a different, slightly bluer perspective. On a more surface level, though, they’re just plain fun to watch.

I’m talking strobe lights, multi-coloured light sabres, body painting (as in, using a hapless audience member as a giant paintbrush…), digitized dancing figures, paint drums, and fluorescent-lit PVC tube instrument creations, including their trademark “drumbone”, an instrument created out of plumbing pipes. On it one Blue Man drums out infectious, primal beats with foam rubber paddles, while the other two simultaneously slide the pipes in and out of each other – just like a trombone – to create a variety of pitches.

Once you’ve seen the show for the first time, it’s easy to understand why people keep coming back, and it also explains why the Blue Man Group has been established as an entertainment force to be reckoned with around the world, with ongoing shows in New York, Boston, London, Las Vegas, Orlando, Tokyo and Berlin, not to mention a European tour onboard the Norwegian Cruise Line’s ship, Norwegian Epic.

The Blue Men have even become enmeshed in the pop culture fabric after having been featured in the storylines of Scrubs and Arrested Development – actually appearing a few times on the latter show.

When I asked my sister, who went with me to the show, what she thought of it afterwards, she had a lot to say: “I loved their props – both digital and physical – the rock concert feel, and the fluorescent band outfits. The band was amazing!”

Part rock concert, part interactive – and hyperactive – theatre, part giant dance party, the Blue Man Group show is definitely an incredible, full-sensory multimedia experience you don’t want to miss.