Jesse Nolan got his first drum set when he was 2, thanks to a music- and theater-loving aunt. At 12, the young drummer saw his first Blue Man Group show in New York City. “My mind was boggled,” Nolan recalls. “I thought the Blue Men characters were cool, but I thought: ‘Wow. A whole show of drummers.’”
Nolan went on to earn degrees in music education and jazz at Indiana University, and to split time between performing in touring Broadway shows and teaching music in public schools. “My love affair with the Blue Man Group started 20 years ago, and I feel really lucky to be traveling with the show,” says Nolan, 32, the musical director and percussionist for the group’s touring show, which returns to Kingsbury Hall on the University of Utah campus April 1-6.
While in town, Nolan will lead a workshop for music students at the Salt Lake Arts Academy. “We are ready to groove Blue Man style,” says Judson S. Armstrong, the school’s music director.
The Blue Man Group, featuring three speechless humanoid bald characters in blue grease paint, began as a small performance art piece in New York City in 1987. Over the years, the show exploded into a multi-media theatrical spectacle, yet still features the trio of speechless characters who drum on unusual instruments made out of PVC pipes.
The show’s themes play upon technology and information overload, while the Blue Man characters are naive outsiders who connect with audiences through their innocence and curiosity. “The Blue Man wants to look at you,” Nolan says. “One of the ideas of the Blue Man character is he’s always exploring, he’s learning, he’s hungry to test things, to experience the world.”
Blue Man has translated performance art into a pop-culture phenomenon: Between six city-based and touring shows, some 60,000 people could attend a Blue Man Group show on any given day.
The show features unique instruments, such as a Drumbone, a sliding PVC pipe that opens and closes to change pitch. The Blue Man’s on-stage band features two percussionists and two string players, who play the Chapman stick, a form of electric guitar, and the electronic zither.
Even the way the score draws upon the drums is different. Instead of rock’s timekeeping back beat, Blue Man songs focus on the tom-toms, with the pulsating, churning grooves of a more tribal sound. In many numbers, the drum rhythms of the Blue Man characters and the band become the melody, instead of the rhythm.
That means the musicians are required to play the show drawing upon the improvisational skills of jazz. “Our job as musicians is to play what we see,” Nolan says. “We have to be very on the ball, watching all the time.”
Brian Tavener, 31, a native of North Carolina, has been playing one of the Blue Man characters for 6 1/2 years, in the Boston show and on the national tour.
“Affectionately and eloquently, we call them “Left,” “Center” and “Right” amongst ourselves,” he said of the alternating roles. “The goal is to be three as one. If we do our job right, if the three of us are on, we are moving as a pack, and it’s almost animalistic. This is definitely a brotherly love job.”
With their performances, the actors hope to share that feeling of brotherly love. The show is centered on the idea that Blue Man characters enter the human realm and play around with technology. Along the way, they remind the audience that technology is secondary to your connections to the people sitting beside you.
For the actors, one of the challenges is learning how to tell a story using both physical movement and stillness, while energetically playing a specific style of accented 16-note drumming. When the characters interact with audiences, they learn to “throw the ball” to another performer, to spread the energy in the theater, with something as simple as a quick eye movement.
“It’s impossible for a child not to like the show,” Tavener says, “but seeing the 60-year-old-grandmother having a blast is my favorite part.”
The Blue Man Group plays Kingsbury Hall
The show, featuring the three bald, blue characters who drum PVC pipes to spectacular lighting effects, performs an eight-show run in Salt Lake City.
When • April 1-April 6; Tuesday-Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, 1 and 6:30 p.m.
Where • Kingsbury Hall, 1395 E. Presidents Circle, University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $32.50-$64.50, weekdays; $54.50-$69.50 weekends; at 801-581-7100 or kingsburyhall.utah.edu.