It’s no secret Chicago loves the blues.
Especially when it comes from three blue-headed, bald-capped gents who have an affinity for making beautiful music on miles of PVC pipes and 60 drum heads. And then there’s all that Jell-O, Twinkies, Cap’n Crunch and paint. And toilet paper.
That’s Blue Man Group, and for 20 years, the troupe has been making its own kind of music — and comedy — at the Briar Street Theatre, where thousands of theatergoers have been won over by the trio. There are six ongoing productions (five in America and one in Berlin). And a world tour brings their musical comedy hijinks to audiences across the globe.
Blue Man actually started 26 years ago in New York, by three pals: Chris Wink, Phil Stanton and Matt Goldman, who originally roamed the Big Apple streets in their blue-headed getup, performing street theater to the delight of lookers-on. Their busking paid off and the first official theatrical production opened in 1991 at the Astor Place Theatre.
In Chicago, six guys comprise the casts, as the grueling demands of the nightly shows make it impossible for only three actors/musicians to fill the bill (they each generally will do five to eight shows per week; and six additional Blue guys will join the cast here for the expanded holiday schedule). Tom Galassi has been performing as a Chicago Blue Man for 15 years (having previously starred in New York and Boston casts), where he’ served as Blue Man captain and assistant director of performer development. He can perform all three of the distinct onstage roles, citing the “middle Man” as his favorite.
“I saw a poster in New York of these blue guys with drums when I was in college there and one of my professors sent me a note saying you should go see these guys. So I did. And when they had auditions, I decided to try out and about nine months later they hired me.
“There are definitely some requirements — we try to cast people between 5-foot-10 and 6-foot-one so there’s some kind of uniformity. … And there’s also something we call the ‘X’ factor; we can pretty much tell if there’s a Blue Man inside the person.” Drumming skills are a plus (Galassi grew up with a drum set in his kitchen and “thought it was the norm in every house”) but the company does send new hires to drum school for months as needed to learn the specific type of drumming required for the show. Cast member ages have ranged from 19 years old to guys in their 50s. The Chicago and Boston casts have also featured women at various times.
Galassi, who studied acting at Western Illinois University before pursing further study and work in New York, said there’s something almost magical about being a Blue Man.
“When I first started, I thought I’d give it a year and move on,” Galassi said with a chuckle, “but it’s such a unique production. It’s so different every night with the audience. The live nature of the show and a sort of abstractness and innocence of the characters — I’m not sure how to characterize it, but it’s very moving for us, and the audiences. There’s a mystery and playfulness to what we do, but it’s a definite expression, almost like a painting.”
Speaking of paint, for those who’ve seen the shows (or the videos), there are those moments of drumming accompanied by paint — lots of neon-lit paint — which require the first several rows of the theater to don ponchos, and the Men to swallow a lot of the colorful (and specially blended) goo.
“It’s really watered-down paint,” Galassi said, “and yes, we do swallow some. Those are special, handmade paintballs that we toss into our mouths. It gets in our eyes. But since our [blue] makeup is grease paint most of the drum paint just rolls right off our faces.”
As for the other “consumables” in the show — specifically marshmallows and cereal, “most of it is spit out,” Galassi said. “It’s all about making new and unique sounds out of every day products. We turn sugary cereal into a song!”
And then there are those eyes — those piercing gazes the cast has turned into an art form. Since there is no dialogue in the show, their eyes are their biggest and most profound means of expression.
“My favorite part is going out into the audience and locking gazes with someone,” Galassi said laughing. “It’s a beautiful — and creepy thing. And so much fun. There’s no literal storyline in the show, so our goal is to go through all these rhythmic and abstract pieces and we hope people leave feeling more keyed in to their imaginations than when they walked in.”
For tickets ($39-$99) for Blue Man Group at the Briar Street Theatre, 3133 N. Halsted, visit ticketmaster.com/bluemangroup. For the complete schedule of shows, including an expanded holiday performance schedule, visit blueman.com/chicago.