At The Briar Street Theater
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – “Blue Man Group” will always be with us. The one-of-a-kind mixture of rock music, comedy, satire, and dazzling mixed media has been going full tilt since 1997 at the Briar Street Theatre with a schedule that seems to offer shows almost hourly, especially during the holiday season on the tourist-rich near North Side.
The company offered the media a look at the tweaked Blue Man Group presentation recently, showing off a few new wrinkles while preserving the basic material and most importantly, the distinctive BMG sensibility built around three men with their bald heads coated in cobalt blue makeup. The men are don’t utter a word during the intermissionless 90-minute performance and they maintain impassive facial expressions, but expressions that are remarkable expressive, articulate, and best of all, funny. Think Buster Keaton times three as a point of reference.
“Blue Man Group” may be the most audience friendly show on any Chicagoland stage. The audience comes to the theater pre-sold to have a good time and they whoop and holler throughout the presentation when their attention isn’t totally engaged by splendid moments of mime or high tech glitzy special effects. The threesome does magical things with foodstuffs, like marshmallows, Captain Crunch breakfast serial, and Twinkies, as well as colored paints, often in a messy and occasionally a gross manner. Customers in the front rows of the theater wear plastic ponchos as protection against the splatter and gunk that may burst from the stage.
Photo Credit: Lindsey Best
The bond between the spectators and the performers is the spine of the show. At the press performance, the Groupers brought a young female patron onto the stage who was nearly catatonic from embarrassment the entire scene. But the trio steered her deftly through a series of small comic moments, including the woman joining them in cutting up some Twinkies to share. What could have been an awkward scene sabotaged by the woman’s embarrassment turned funny and charming under the BMG’s subtle guidance.
Blue Man Group” has no explicit theme or topical agenda but it’s very much a contemporary show in its harnessing of social media implements like I Pads as well as its state of the art use of film (live and animation) and gee-whiz lighting effects. If the show has any point of view, it’s a mockery of modern art and modern electronic gadgetry, though the put down of spontaneously created abstract art is getting pretty dated. But mostly the production just unrolls one funny, clever, and surprising bit after another. There is no connective thematic tissue I recognized and none is needed.
Photo Credit: Lindsey Best
The show isn’t as raucous and frantic as it’s been in the past. I’ve seen shows that assaulted the eardrums into numbness with over- amplified rock music. The musical accompaniment still comes from three musicians outfitted in Day-Glo costumes perched above the stage, but instead of a sonic barrage they largely accompany the action with a live soundtrack inspired by the guitar-heavy sound of the Ventures of the early years of rock. The music relied on a percussion beat throughout but was listenable and even swinging rather than a battering ram of sensory overload. The Groupers perform collectively and proficiently on a long marimba like contraption that was maybe one number too long.
The end of the show previously enclosed the audience in a cocoon of paper that some customers thought was a hoot and caused others of a more claustrophobic inclination to freak out as the inexorable surge of paper enveloped them. That finale has been replaced by a swarm of giant inflated globes descending from the rafters illuminated by a riot of lighting effects to seduce viewers into batting them around, except that the globes were strangely elusive to the touch. Great fun and a little weird and disconcerting.
I was surprised at the number of small children attending the evening weeknight performance. There is nothing off color about the production but it attains a level of technical sophistication that one would think might test the attention span of youngsters. But the kids clearly had as big a ball as their adult caretakers. “Blue Man Group” truly is a family show.
The Briar Street lobby is designed to amuse and intrigue visitors both young and old on entry, so an early arrival is recommended to allow mingling with fellow audience members exploring the exhibits. Once in your seats, an electric sign above the stage continuously scrolls messages to elicit audience responses to birthdays, late arrivals, and the like. By the time the show proper begins, the customers are jacked to have an exuberantly happy time. And after the show the performers move to the lobby where they can be photographed with spectators, a perfect finish to a distinctive entertainment experience that figures to be around for another 20 years, at least.
revue gets a rating of 3½ stars.
”Blue Man Group” is playing an open run at the Briar Street Theatre, 3133 North Halsted Street. Performance times vary, with two or more performances on several days of the week. Tickets run from $49 to $99. For information, visit www.blueman.com or call 773 348 4000.
Contact Dan at: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com.
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