There was a time, back in the late 1980s, when Blue Man Group seemed utterly of the moment.
They took up New Wave act Devo's devolutionary baton and ran with it, a trio of blue-hued naifs come to deconstruct art and commercialism and to lead us back to our tribal cave, banging drums, painting the walls, and blowing on PVC pipes all night long.
It seems, however, in the intervening years, the Blue Men learned our ways so well that their press packet now contains clips from Inc. and Fortune Small Business, magazines trumpeting the success of "Brand Blue." The original three men spawned a cobalt army of roughly 90 performers (seven of whom populate this show, three at a time) whose efforts appear on albums, on a concert tour, in a museum show, in talk-show appearances, in dedicated theaters in Las Vegas and Orlando (among other cities worldwide), on Norwegian Cruise Line trips, and in a forthcoming Imax movie.
But good for them if they can take incisive performance to the masses and make a bundle doing it. My complaint isn't about selling out; it's about watering down. The performers in the tour passing through the Merriam Theater take Blue Man Group's original concept, add bits from subsequent productions, repackage them as a "best of" collection, and toss the audience a big, bouncy ball of Blue Man kitsch.
Despite the installation of a giant LED wall, eardrum-traumatizing speakers, and a backup band, the most interesting segments of the show still feature the Men and their tubes, or the Men, a mouthful of paint or marshmallows, and a canvas. The audience-participation bits have little context, and a section lifted from their "satirical rock concert" has even less. What's more, an entire piece decrying the use of electronic devices segues into several scenes that rely entirely on the use of electronic effects.
By the time the affair gets around to its grand rave-meets-Burning Man finale (they wish), complete with inflatable flashing orbs, streamers, and a giant anatomy Manikin puppet, you can't help but wonder what exactly we're supposed to be celebrating.
I saw Blue Man Group's Tubes in the early 1990s at the Astor Place Theater, where the Men still reside, and recall walking away excited about what Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton, and Chris Wink's vision portended for the future of performance art. But that was long ago. It seems the Blue Men have embraced the commercialism they once satirized, and are willingly handing off that devolutionary baton.
Blue Man Group
Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad St., through Jan. 2. Tickets: $25-85. Information: 215-731-3333 or KimmelCenter.org/broadway.