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Tradition Meets Next-World Magic

by Chris Arnott | Dec 27, 2013 3:55 pm

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Posted to: Arts & Culture, Theater

Networks Blue Man Group is blowing through the Shubert with airbags a-flyin’, drums a-poundin’, paint a-splatterin’, marshmallows regurgitatin’.

You wouldn’t predict it would be a natural fit: New Haven’s nearly century-old downtown proscenium theater assailed by a scrappy Off Broadway performance-art sensation, which assaults its audiences with hard-rock rhythms and confronts the crowds even more directly by climbing around the auditorium seats or dragging a couple of brave souls onstage for expressionist art projects or post-modern food fights.

But this is not your great-grandfather’s Shubert, where the most reckless performance acts used to be Al Jolson stopping a show in its tracks so he could sing whatever he wanted to sing, or the fine-tuning of an “11 o’clock number” in the pre-Broadway try-out of a new musical.

Nor is this your hip uncle’s Blue Man Group. Founded 25 years ago, and having established standing companies in several cities, the group began to concoct major national tours for itself only a decade or so ago. This latest excursion blends elements from the original, intimate small-theater Blue Man Group show Tubes with grander, broader-ranging crowd-rousing bits from large venue tours such as How to Be a Megastar.

Nice to have something so blue in New Haven that has nothing to do with Yale.

Networks The opening night audience for Blue Man Group at the Shubert on Thursday spanned at least four generations. There’s certainly something for everyone in a Blue Man Group show. Just as admirably, there’s something not for everyone. Those who dig the well-timed silent-comedy routines might not enjoy the ass and testicle double-entendres. Those who like the throbbing music might not succumb to the drawn-out audience-participation exercises. Those who prefer to sit and take it all in might not appreciate being asked to rise and dance.

The Blue Man Group does what the Blue Man Group does, and such uncompromising behavior is in itself refreshing. It’s remarkable how many different elements—comedy, music, slammed-body art, the adept catching of foodstuffs in open mouths—can be packed into a single intermissionless 100-minute show.

Until March of this year, Blue Man Group hadn’t played New Haven since an early-career opening-act gig at Toad’s Place. That springtime gig comprised four performances. This current wintertime stop, which ends on New Year’s Eve, runs to seven shows, the most performances for any single event at the Shubert in 2013.

How did Blue Man Group become the surefire sell-out blockbuster at the Shubert, bigger than the Broadway musical tours that have been the theater’s bread and butter for its entire history? It has a lot to do with how much the Shubert itself has changed in the 12 years that it has been run by the Ohio-based theater management group CAPA. There are more concerts there now, including such proudly loud acts as The Pixies (who play the Shubert in January). There are more pop-based musicals, such as Mamma Mia and We Will Rock You. Most of all, CAPA has broadened the range of what’s considered a Shubert-ready show.

Blue Man Group fits the bill ideally. It’s the right size, shape and attitude for the new, up-for-anything Shubert. The show, and the theater, provide an invigorating blend of comfort and disorientation, up-close spectacle and distanced, screen-bound technology. There’s tradition, and there’s next-world magic.

Christopher Arnott Photo The Shubert is a great backdrop for this shade of Blue Man Group, and the Blue Man Group is a great showcase for what the Shubert can be as a performing arts center. That potential will only get stronger when the theater transforms its second-floor mezzanine lobby into a new small performance space as part of full-scale renovations at the venue in 2014.

Blue Man Group makes the whole theater seem small, in a good way. This is a tight, economical operation which operates like a professional theater rock show. There are the three titular blue mute figures, staring and spewing. (For this tour, the threesome is Mike Brown, Russell Rinker and Brian Taverner.) A four-piece, largely percussion-based back-up band is positioned on scaffolding at the back of the stage; it adds an extra visual punch to several scenes. An onstage cameraman records the numerous trips the blue men make into the audience. There are several other technicians and stagehands standing by to help make all the tricks work.

Blue Man Group works hard to make sure a show which essentially concentrates on three people can fill whatever venue they happen to wander blithely into. There are lots of video projections, including at one point a set of giant electronic-tablet-like devices called “GiPads” which the group interacts with. But the screens also regularly get used so that folks in the balconies can share in the fun of watching the blue men’s deadpan expressions. Rarely has so much technology been utilized in order to capture the nuances of a blank stare.

One of the Blue Man Group’s singular shticks is that they seem perpetually out-of-place. They are strange visitors from a palette far away, oddly colored and moving to exotic rhythms they cull from found objects (pipes, paddles, Captain Crunch cereal) or from more conventional instruments (gongs). They are not entirely at odds with contemporary culture—besides those immense ‘GiPad’ devices (advertised with the slogan “We want to do for reading what texting has done for driving”), there are TV commercial parodies, references to Devo and Lynyrd Skynyrd, and a long show-ending dance-party litany of synonyms for “buttocks.”

That’s where the massive gyrating airbags come in. Blue Man Group turns the Shubert auditorium into the modern equivalent of a 1940s confetti-strewn big-band ballroom on New Year’s Eve. Except that it’s 2013, and the Shubert can handle it.

Blue Man Group is at the Shubert (247 College St.) through Dec. 31. Remaining performances are Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 & 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., Monday at 7:30 p.m. and Tuesday at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $15 to $125. (203) 562-5666.

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