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On NYC's Streets, A Rhapsody in Blue

Three members of The Blue Man group turn heads in Greenwich Village in New York City. Video by John Deiner/The Washington Post Editor: Francine Uenuma/
By John Deiner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 27, 2008

Whatever you do, never ask a Blue Man to assume the jazz hands position.

"No, no hands! They don't do that. It's not in their arsenal of moves," implores Chris Wink, who co-founded Blue Man Group in the late '80s. A photographer has cornered a trio of his cerulean creations on St. Mark's Place in New York's artsy East Village and is coaxing them to go into "Cabaret" mode.

As the puzzled threesome (well, they always look puzzled) begin to raise their palms into the air, Wink rushes over and jumps in front of the camera. "No Fosse hands, please."

You can't blame the guy for being protective. After all, he knows what makes a man truly Blue . . . and what doesn't. The troupe was formed when Wink and fellow caterers Matt Goldman and Phil Stanton -- searching for an outlet for their excessive creativity, musical panache and freakish ability to snatch tossed marshmallows out of thin air with their mouths -- began performing on Manhattan streets and fringe stages. In 1991, they opened in the intimate Astor Place Theatre on Lafayette Street.

They're still there. The faces under the paint may have changed (although Wink still goes blue on occasion, new performers appear at the Astor Place), but the Blue Men have become neighborhood staples. Audiences get the same frenetic blend of multimedia theatrics, music from instruments seemingly purchased in Whoville and awkward bouts of onstage participation.

Today, Blue Man Group has stage shows in Boston, Chicago, Las Vegas, Orlando, Berlin and Oberhausen, Germany. It has just opened a new venue in Tokyo and tours in a lavish production called "How to Be a Megastar 2.1." (It's at Patriot Center on Feb. 9-10.) There have been film and TV scores and albums, and last year Wink and company inaugurated the Blue Man Creativity Center, a school next to the theater for more than 40 kids. And if you didn't see how Blue Man Group was confused with a depressed-male support group in "Arrested Development," you need to get the Season 2 DVD.

One thing they haven't done much of, though, is explore their own back yard. In full Blue regalia. And without a smidge of fanfare. On this unseasonably warm fall afternoon, Wink has agreed to set loose three Blue Men, as much to show off his 'hood, one suspects, as to see what sort of ruckus it would trigger.

The group's large rented van pulls up in front of the Astor Place, which sits across from Joe Papp's fabled Public Theater. Rain is in the forecast, particularly worrisome if your skullcapped noggin is covered in thick blue goo, and darkness is coming on fast. The trio emerges bright-eyed and black-sheathed from the van and immediately proceeds up Lafayette.

Ruckus ensues.

Within minutes, dozens of passersby -- more than a few of them New Yorkers, mind you -- have surrounded the Blue Men as they jump off to posture near Tony Rosenthal's "Alamo" sculpture, more popularly known as the Cube. Wink, an architecture buff and native New Yorker, averts his eyes from the growing crush long enough to scowl at the startlingly modern skyscraper opposite the large metal block.

"I think one of the lures of [the East Village] is not just the old days, but that there are still some amazing buildings," he says. "We know that the forces of gentrification are at work, but at least the buildings haven't been razed."

Moments later, his Blue Men nearly are. As the crowd of gawkers surges toward St. Mark's Place, traffic signals are ignored and common sense is discarded. Cars and trucks stop short, horns blaring; at least once, a driver's middle finger stands salute.

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