It sounds like a scene out of an H.G. Wells or George Orwell novel – men painted blue, working away on tubular homemade musical instruments, with lots of color, tarps, drums, splattering paint and video incorporated into their own unique brand of audio, comedy and stage shows.
The Blue Man Group has been an international success as an intentionally over-the-top, highly-produced stage show and avant-garde musical performance since the beginning of the millennium. But in reality, the show had been growing, morphing and adapting since its formation in 1987.
What started as a small operation and variety show in New York snowballed into a world-touring, grandiose operation. Blue Man Kalen Allmandinger, who's been with the troupe since the turn of the century, has seen lots in the past dozen years. He originally studied acting at Chicago College of Performing Arts – where he worked with Lookingglass, About Face and Chicago Shakespeare theater companies – and happened upon the Blue Man Group in an almost organic way. "When I graduated, there was another open call," says Allmandinger. "And they were able to seat me as part of the open calls – flew out to New York – there's a long process."
The group had just caught a huge windfall of popularity, and was growing in leaps and bounds thanks to a timely advertising campaign. "It was 11 to 12 years ago," he says. "I was training in late 2000, signed to my first cast in December – right around the time when they did the Pentium Intel commercials, which really put them on a national stage. After that, it was faster and faster spread."
That spread included several world tours, residencies in major markets from Vegas to Tokyo and even a continued show aboard Norwegian Cruise Line. "We've been to Brazil, London, Tokyo, Berlin," Allmandinger says. "They're still in Berlin after eight years, London two years. Tokyo four years."
The staying power of the group has as much to do with their refreshing, off-the-wall, visually- and audibly-pleasing performances as it does with the fact that they paint themselves blue and don't talk during their shows. There's a certain level of mysticism that surrounds this oddball act – and it's grown to such mass appeal that you'd be hard-pressed to meet someone who hasn't witnessed at least once of their performances. "We see people of all ages – young and old – having fun and enjoying themselves," says Allmandinger.
What does it take, though, to put together a stage show that incorporates the audacity and musical elements of a stadium rock concert, the elaborate costumes and acting of a Broadway performance and the humor, props and eccentric behavior of, well, a large-scale Gallagher? "We have, including management and performers, 25 people we tour with, 12 of which is crew," says Allmandinger. "Loading in and out, though, is more like 30 to 50 people."
That's a large group, likely working in the most efficient manner possible (keep in mind, they have been doing this for a couple decades), setting up elaborate stage shows, tearing them down and putting them back up again. And then there are the actual actors themselves. How does this staff stay fresh, putting on so many performances so regularly? "The work crews will go in for maintenance and props," says Allmandinger. "We do shows so regularly, rehearsals aren't even necessary. At the beginning of the tour, we have a month of workshops and rehearsals."
Rotating actors on a tour is a necessity when you're putting on a performance of this magnitude. The cast regularly travels with four actors, three of whom will perform each night, giving a rotation of nights off to the fourth Blue Man. Nevertheless, there comes a time in every Blue Man's career when he makes the decision to leave the group. And this happens to be Allmandinger's time to fly the nest. "It's my last hurrah this tour," he says. "For people who are involved and want to do other things, people are able to go off and figure it out. They're a big company. There are ways to be involved without being directly involved on the tour. There are other opportunities."
Despite the departure of one of the group's long-time actors, the show goes on. The empire that the Blue Man Group has built is still growing, as evidenced by the tweaked show that will be rolling into town at the Fisher Theatre for the first half of May. While not a complete departure from their highly successful theatrics, the new installations are sure to delight both those who have witnessed the blue wave in the past, and those who may be new to the sensation. "There's a lot of new stuff, "says Allmandinger. "There's a big video component – a lot of stuff is written around that. It kind of comes alive." And that's all we're going to say. What fun would it be to give away all the surprises? | RDW
Blue Man Group • 5/1-5/13, showtimes vary • Fisher Theatre • 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit • 800.982.2787 • broadwayindetroit.com