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Vaudeville, a Venetian, and Blue Men in Vegas

Email|Print| Text size + By Steve Morse
Globe Correspondent / November 11, 2007

LAS VEGAS - A five-foot-wide drum appears on stage, affectionately dubbed "The Big Drum" by the cast. In another skit, the nose of a jet plane emerges as deafening noise fills the 1,760-seat theater. These props are unique to Blue Man Group's Las Vegas show, which has become the standard-bearer of its programs around the world.

Blue Man Group, founded in 1987 and in a theater since 1991, has had a Boston show for 12 years, and has others in New York, Chicago, Orlando, Fla., and in Berlin, Oberhausen (in far western Germany), and next month will open in Tokyo. But this version at The Venetian has made breakthroughs in the so-called "trickster vaudeville" that lies at the core of the Blue Man experience. The performance still pokes fun at conformity and follows the nonverbal misadventures of three men dressed in blue face masks, but does it in a Vegas environment tailor-made for them two years ago.

"There was an offer we couldn't refuse to come here," says Kori Prior, the production supervisor, who grew up in Falmouth and studied stage management at the Boston University College of Fine Arts. "We had a great run at the Luxor Hotel before this," she says, referring to another spot on the Strip where the group was based for five years. "But we left them amicably - and the opportunity to have a specially built set and the ability to create a new show was something we didn't want to pass up."

The Vegas show is a model of efficiency. The group can move its PVC pipes around (used for percussion, they're plumbing pipes from Home Depot), whereas on smaller stages the pipes tend to be stationary. This show (and only one other) has large zoetropes that are welded, alien figures coated with resin and bolted to a turntable that whips them around to give animation effects under huge strobe lights.

The band is bigger, too. Seven members (up from the usual three or four) perform on tiers behind the Blue Men. But the show still retains an intimacy that is a mission statement for the group.

"There are many shows in Vegas where you can see 60 people on stage," says Scott Speiser, who plays a Blue Man at the Venetian. "But the show is unique. There are just three guys on stage, apart from the band in back. It's still about the Blue Man characters and interactions and how they interact with the crowd." (Suffice to say, they often jump into the crowd, step over seats, and run up and down the aisles.)

"When we opened here, many people said, 'How are you going to do the show in a larger space? No way!' But I think we've pulled it off," says Vince Verderame, the group's music director.

The show has become a must-see on the Strip. You have to walk through a casino to get there (you have to walk through a casino to get anywhere in Vegas), but it's almost satisfaction guaranteed.

There are still some signature Blue Man bits found elsewhere, such as the Blue Men banging on oil drums filled with nontoxic paint, and the childlike throwing and catching of marshmallows in their mouths (no, they are not magnets). There is the famous unrolling of crepe paper, which the audience pulls forward overhead toward the stage. Three hundred rolls of paper are used per show, and a nightly crew of 35 assists in the production, from spotlight operators to paint mixers.

"So much of the show is old-school vaudeville in a new context," says Verderame. "It's like a good pop song that doesn't go away."

Each night a couple of audience members are brought up to join the festivities - and each of their behaviors is a little different, though the Blue Men can usually coax them into joining their sight-gag humor. The guests are asked to relate to objects that range from a Hostess Twinkie to a candle.

"You take an object that exists in people's minds and do something strange with it," says Verderame. And that's an understatement.

Musically, the show is a monster. The Blue Men whale away on the PVC pipes and don 45-pound "backpack tubulums" that wrap around their torsos and consist of more piping to bang. And the band - featuring four drummers - often stokes a blitzing crescendo behind them.

"All these guys are rock guys," says Verderame. "This is not a normal theater show. We're basically taking a rock band attitude and mentality and sticking it into the theater."

A bunch of the Vegas musicians once lived in Boston. Drummer Nick White played in the Boston band Trona (with Christian Dyas, who now works for Blue Man Group in New York). Guitarist Billy O'Malley was in Boston's Jockobono, and another drummer, Jordan Cohen, was in Powerman 5000. And the overall Blue Man Group director is Todd Perlmutter, who is based in New York but used to play with Dyas in the Boston band Orangutang, which flirted with national fame.

"I still can't explain to my parents what all of this is," says Speiser. "Is it a play? No. Is it a rock concert? Yeah, a little bit. It's hard to describe. When you go to a new city, people aren't sure what they're going to see."

If you go to Vegas, however, you're going to see the grandest, most progressive Blue Man Group yet.

Steve Morse, a freelance writer living in Cambridge, can be reached at spmorse@gmail.com.

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