NEW YORK — There's something about Blue Man Group's gig at the Hollywood Bowl this weekend, its first, that reminds Chris Wink of launching the now-global brand in a small Manhattan theater 22 years ago.
It's obviously not the iconic band shell, or playing with the 86-member Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, the international guest artists or the blue fireworks.
"When we started," says Wink, "we were a fish our of water...three bald men playing [plumbing] pipes. How do you stay a fish out of water when you become part of popular culture? We can go onstage with people in tuxedos and create some fun."
The mash-up of high art and low comedy has been an essential part of the Blue Man brand since it opened its first theatrical show, "Tubes," in 1991 at the 299-seat Astor Place Theatre — where it is still running.
What Wink, Phil Stanton and Matt Goldman conceived of as a commentary on the pretentiousness of performance art, tech fetishism and the shallow greed of the 1980s has evolved. For one thing, theatergoers entering the Astor Place are met by three giant Iphones with comic icons.
Yet what appeals to the public today is still the same: the essential humanity, innocence and heroism of their tripartite character, Wink says.
Translating that from a 299-seat theater to Las Vegas and rock arenas has posed a challenge. But those have been a cakewalk compared with the 18,000-seat Bowl, the dimensions of which have had Wink's team waking up with "the fear of God" for the past few months.
It's not just a question of using the Bowl's new high-definition video screens and "painting" on a larger canvas, says Wink. "We have to make it an immersive and poetic experience for everyone from the front row to 50 yards back. You have to own the place."
That has only become possible, adds Wink, "because with the invitation from the Bowl came the permission to 'go crazy.'"
"Absolutely. We had no trepidation, " says Hollywood Bowl program manager Brian Grohl. "Anyone who knows Blue Man knows what they're getting into — fun, smart entertainment."
When Blue Man asked who in the orchestra might be a game player for its antics, Grohl offered up concert mistress and violinist Katia Popov, who will be magically transformed into a "slightly cheesy" rocker, and principal guest conductor Thomas Wilkins, who will be turned into a human paintbrush and hoisted high above the stage. Or at least a stunt double will.
"There's no question that this event will change the Bowl as much as it might change Blue Man," says Grohl. "And yet they've been incredibly respectful."
Well, up to a point, says Todd Perlmutter, Blue Man's musical director. The program will include classical music pieces interspersed with Blue Man's own compositions as well as previous collaborations with such artists as Brazil's Monobloco, pop singer Tracy Bonham, Venice Beach boardwalk artist Harry Perry, California throat singer Arjuna, and Japanese didgeridoo player Natsuki Tamura.
"Our aesthetic is putting together disparate bedfellows of cultural influences," says Wink.
While Aram Khatchaturian might be pleased with how Blue Man has enhanced his feverish "Sabre Dance" with its percussive style, Perlmutter says that Maurice Ravel might "freak out" with what it's doing to "Bolero."
"It's definitely way more bizarre," he says with a laugh. "It starts off with flutes and then gets weirder and weirder with the musical saw, theramin, jaw harp and a lot of other unusual instruments coming in."
What all the acts playing with Blue Man at the Bowl have in common are "joyful bursts of deviant energy," says Wink, enhanced by the "projection mapping" of the Bowl by the San Francisco-based experimental video company Obscura Digital. "We want the place to explode," says Wink. "We want to use the tools of spectacle towards the end of creating an emotional, hopefully sublime experience."
The Bowl audience will be the largest the group has ever performed in front of. Wink makes no bones that the show has been a huge financial investment (said to be in the high six figures) for Blue Man.
"There's no profit in this," he says with a laugh.
Depending on how the Bowl event is received, it might well become an annual "summer shed" type event. For a company that tightly controls its brand — it rarely works with outside producers — this is an experiment on an epic scale.
Motioning around the Astor Place Theatre, Wink adds, "The fourth Blue Man is the audience and the environments we play in. But we aren't just this show. We want to be a group that is constantly up to things, playing around and engaging new audiences. The Hollywood Bowl will be a test of that."
Blue Man Group
Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Fri. and Sat.
Tickets: Friday $17-$135, Saturday $20-$139
Contact: http://www.hollywoodbowl.com/ or (323) 850-2000