One of Blue Man Group’s taglines is “Hard to Describe. Easy to Love.” Kudos to their publicist; this is spot-on. And the fact the show’s meaning isn’t handed to you on a silver platter is why it confuses some, and confuses AND delights others — and has done so since 1987.
On that subject, Blue Man Group joins ranks with the likes of Mr. Bean and the musical Cats as performance art that emphasizes off-putting visuals over a coherent narrative. The advantage of emphasizing memorable spectacle over plot is that doing so enables art — if it doesn’t initially turn off its potential audience — to cross barriers of language, culture, and age. For example, on the night I attended, the Kennedy Center’s audience for Blue Man Group seemed to be at least 25 percent children under 12. How did I know? Constant squeals of laughter, approval, and “What’s he doing, Mommy?” Meanwhile, an elderly man was among the audience members called to the stage for a bit. So, you see? It really is a show for all ages.
Blue Man Group’s new show (and it is new… the description of the show on the Kennedy Center’s website notes that “it’s everything you know and love about Blue Man Group… the men are still blue but the rest is all new!”) is made up of a series of skits. The Blue Men — three mute, earless men whose exposed hands and heads are entirely blue (played by three of the four actors Meridian, Mike Brown, Steven Wendt, and Adam Zuick at any given show) — demonstrate how the simplest things in our lives, from paint to PVC pipe, can be used to create art. Blue Man Group fully leans into its weirdness — and if they didn’t, the show wouldn’t be half as entertaining as it is. Blue Man Group seems to ask with utmost urgency: What is art? And most important, what is beauty?
These inquiries into beauty are beautiful in themselves, thanks to the creative direction of Jonathan Knight, the lighting design of Jen Schriever, the SFX design of Bill Swartz, and the sound design of the company Crest Factor. A floor-to-ceiling set, designed by Jason Ardizzone-West, has been constructed and lined with projection screens, simultaneously serving as a place for individual flashing lights when needed. For example, when the first Blue Man appears, he hits a surface with a mallet, which creates a wave of starlike lights twinkling all across the stage. Slowly, this begins to coincide with percussive rock. In one notable sketch, the Blue Men play drums containing lights while hitting their paint-covered surfaces. Paint splatters and appears to glow, to the Blue Men’s joy (or what looks like joy, given they don’t emote). It is just as riveting and visually stunning as the production photos suggest. Go see this show, if just for that recurring bit.
Under the direction and writing of Michael Dahlen, and the writing of Jonathan Knight, the Blue Men move from one skit to another. While the visuals of the show cannot be beat, and the charming yet haunting Blue Men somehow prove to even their doubters that they’re worth the hype, the writing of some of these sketches occasionally leaves something to be desired. The sketch in which one Blue Man throws about fifteen pieces of clay-like gum into another’s mouth, for example, is entertaining only for the first ten pieces of gum. After that, it’s merely wildly impressive, but something can be impressive without being entertaining.
Similarly, one sketch in which an audience member is asked to hold a target for the Blue Men to pelt a giant paintball at (which would presumably also drench the audience member, despite the meager visor he was given) ended disappointingly at the show I attended. The Blue Men dropped everything quite suddenly to play a prerecorded song making fun of two latecomers getting to their seats, and then moved on without incident to another sketch while a production assistant had the audience member holding the target quietly sit down. Meanwhile, expectant audience members seemed visibly confused as he awkwardly took his seat. While the “late” song was indeed hilarious in the moment, to have all that buildup over the giant paintball — and oh, were my brother and I excited to see that guy, er, target get hit with a giant paintball — end with nothing was disappointing. Even if the “late” song was improvised, which it appeared to be, the paintball sketch, which had significant buildup, ended unfinished. The storyline lacked a climax, which rendered the sketch dissatisfying.
Several of the night’s sketches fall along these lines. Their storylines don’t feel quite riveting enough apart from their beautiful visuals to make one want to pay attention to the plot of the sketch. The Blue Men themselves are entertaining enough to make these sketches passable, but many sketches left me wondering if I missed something. And as is a common critique of family-friendly media, beautiful visuals alone do not redeem a lacking story. The skits are framed more like disparate sketches with no beginning, middle, or end — which is a normal approach for sketch comedy shows, but the lack of orthodox narrative in Blue Man sketches made me hunger for a broader narrative.
In one of the show’s most crowd-pleasing bits, the Blue Men seem to learn about human courting habits (if you see them as aliens attempting to study human behavior) through the eyes of two willing audience members pulled at random. The Blue Men hand them phones, have them give each other chocolates and flowers, and end the sketch by leading the two down the aisle, one in a veil, while one of the expressionless Blue Men throws confetti everywhere. It was a showstopper. You had to be there. Two audience members getting spontaneously married by three blue guys chucking confetti in their faces? Now that’s a good story. Hard to describe, easy to love indeed.
Running Time: One hour 20 minutes, with no intermission.
Blue Man Group plays through July 31, 2022, in the Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($39–$149) are available at the box office, online, or by calling (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324.
The program for Blue Man Group is online here.
COVID Safety: Masks are required for all patrons inside all theaters during performances at the Kennedy Center unless actively eating or drinking. Kennedy Center’s complete COVID Safety Plan is here.