Thomas Wilkins, principal guest conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, had a tough show this weekend, when Blue Man Group was in town.
First the three bald, blue-headed men cut his baton in half with oversized novelty clippers.
Then they shut him in a box and took over the conducting -- using methods not endorsed by any conservatory, such as holding up a stuffed shark to trigger the theme from “Jaws” -- only releasing him when they lost control of an opera singer.
Later, they dressed him in a jumpsuit and helmet, led him backstage, sloshed blue paint on him, attached him to a crane, hoisted him above the stage and dropped him onto a canvas below to create a blurry blue body print.
“Walk in the door a black man, walk out the door a blue man,” Wilkins quipped good-naturedly.
Although the plummeting figure was a stunt double, the escapade was so persuasively choreographed as to suggest that Wilkins could add “daredevil,” not to mention “really good sport,” to his already daunting resume.
In planning this first appearance at the Hollywood Bowl, Blue Man Group, the magically profitable, category-resistant entertainment that has crept over the Earth like a gooey azure virus, set out to wrest the crowd’s attention decisively away from its picnic boxes.
The group's very entrance was a puzzle: The video screens showed the cobalt threesome (Christopher Bowen, Mark Frankel and Brian Scott) walking onstage, but they weren’t actually there. What was going on? The audience finally spotted them on top of the acoustic canopy.
For this massive outdoor venue, the group eschewed the food and paint tricks -- marshmallow spitting, Cap’n Crunch smashing, paint-splashing -- that brought them fame (and can still be seen at their long-running show in New York and spin-offs in Boston, Chicago, Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla.).
They did make plenty of music by drumming on segments of PVC pipe, arranged and twisted into inventive instruments, throughout magnificently orchestrated numbers that included original compositions and covers ranging from “Also Sprach Zarathustra” to “Baba O’Riley.”
But for a good part of the two-hour show, the characters conceived as a send-up of 1980s performance art behaved more like musical impresarios, showcasing their favorite emerging artists.
“Welcome to Orchestral Composition for Dummies,” announced an unseen narrator, as the Blue Men, poised over their plumbing pipe contraption, cocked their inky heads. The lesson advised them to add elements to a developing composition and assess their effects on the audience.
Accordingly, the Blue Men kept leading in guest musicians from the wings, bossily positioning them and then stepping back to evaluate the increasingly uncanny sounds. One wheeled in a large box labeled “Zuzu Singers,” which contained, as advertised, singers going “Zu zu zu zu.”
During a spirited “Bolero,” the stage filled with, among others, a woman playing a saw with a bow, a throat singer, a beatboxer, a sitar player, a bagpipe band and, finally, Harry Perry, the roller-skating electric guitar player from Venice Beach.
The infectious Brazilian band Monobloco took the stage and stayed for the finale, “Baba O’Riley,” sung by Tracy Bonham. A Blue Man somehow turned a grand piano into a drum. Concertmaster Katia Popov underwent a Cinderella-like wardrobe change under a shower of glitter before her violin solo.
Streamers shot into the audience as fireworks exploded behind three flaming outlines of bald men in the sky.
Although Blue Man Group has come so far from its humble origins -- and although it is now performed by an interchangeable cast of minions instead of by creators Chris Wink, Matt Goldman and Phil Stanton -- it hasn’t lost its soul.
The mute automatons’ curiosity and determination remain strangely endearing. Their interaction with the amusingly responsive and obedient orchestra evoked the joyful mischief of old Bugs Bunny cartoons.
Nor have they outgrown their juvenile sense of humor. An announcement that the intermission was over somehow devolved into a list of colorful synonyms for hindquarters. You kind of had to be there.
If you weren’t, don’t worry: They, or three men just like them, will probably be back soon.