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A Sweet Dose of Androgyny / Boy George / Rosie musical 'Taboo' meanders in style

On Wednesday, the deliberations in the nasty court case

between Rosie O'Donnell and her magazine publishers finally ended. The judge

concluded that the suit had been ill-conceived from the start, and that no one

was entitled to damages.

And last night, the nasty preview period for Rosie O'Donnell's $10-million

Broadway extravaganza finally ended, with the opening of "Taboo" at the

Plymouth Theatre. The show, generally but imprecisely known as the musical

about Boy George, might better have been conceived in a funky venue where a

young audience could leisurely discover the erratic but genuine pleasures for

itself, as happened with "Rent." But ill-conceived? Not in this corner.

As for damage, certainly the bad press from O'Donnell's noisy trial, last-

gasp creative changes and at least one cast mutiny have distracted from work

that should have been done to tighten the rambling structure.

Director and co-creator Christopher Renshaw, with well-publicized

background help from "consultant" Jeff Calhoun, might have cut a few of the

more generic ballads and focused the sprawling storylines about too many

characters with too little to say about life in London's hip androgynous club

land of the '80s.

But "Taboo" is not - we repeat not - the train wreck that Broadway's flop-

collectors were promised by advance word. In fact, much of George's score -

plenty of new songs plus "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me" and "Karma Chameleon"

- has the sensitively outrageous lyrics and bouncy sweetness of his iconic

hits. Compared with the flabby music in the fall's other big commercial shows,

"The Boy From Oz" and "Wicked," this one is good pop art.

Like those more disappointing mixed blessings, "Taboo" has terrific

performers in less than riveting material. This one has George, touchingly

tentative as an actor but boldly musical, in a story that is less about his own

career than about the scene around the notoriously fashionable Taboo club. You

probably already know that George, born George O'Dowd in working-class Kent,

dresses up like a Dada tea cozy as the consciously grotesque fashion star and

performance artist named Leigh Bowery.

George himself is enchantingly portrayed by the much younger Euan Morton,

who has the original's silken, female sway, the endearing bravado and the

defiant yet plaintive eyes behind the kabuki makeup.

Also, but hardly an also-ran, there is the ever-more-surprising New York

theater original, Raul Esparza, as Philip Sallon, George's longtime friend and

competitor - and our narrator.

Things begin at an abandoned warehouse, the former site of the club, where

Philip and another late-night denizen named Big Sue have arrived for a

retrospective photo shoot of what was briefly celebrated as London's New

Romantics movement. For a while, it seems that Charles Busch, hired by

O'Donnell to adapt the book from the very different London production, is

framing the show as a raunchy, chic-outsider version of Stephen Sondheim's

"Follies," the haunting reunion of troubled old chorus girls.

Before long, alas, the story assumes the familiar arc of a celebrity

biography - you know, career and love, drugs and AIDS. "Taboo" doesn't have

Hugh Jackman to galvanize the remarkably similar trajectory in "Boy From Oz."

In fact, the project, conceived for a small London theater by George and

Renshaw, spreads the melodrama over so many different people that we can't tell

one fame-craving, love-yearning, doom-flirting character from another. By the

time George's Bowery turns himself into a gallery installation and dies, we

have begun to suspect that the heart of the musical wants to belong to this

strange and strangely brilliant artist. Excerpts from Charles Atlas'

documentary about him are moving, even educational, but they stop whatever

momentum exists and distract us with divided dramatic loyalties.

What the show does have - and could not exist without - is a great sense of

style. Tim Goodchild's set is a deceptively simple structure of metallic

catwalks and neon club signs. On top of this come nonstop outlandish, freaky

and beautiful costumes by Mike Nicholls and Bobby Pearce: monstrous tutus and

goggles for Bowery, drapy tunics and floppy hats for George, fabulous

drag-queen gowns for Marilyn (played with a lovely mix of guts and sentiment by

Jeffrey Carlson).

Liz McCartney has a big, creamy voice as Big Sue, though the character is

pretty irrelevant. Even more unnecessary is Sarah Uriarte Berry as Bowery's

assistant, then wife, Nicola. Cary Shields does what he can with the thankless

role of George's conflicted, macho love.

Esparza's Philip arrives with a new bizarro look for every

attention-getting scene. Overdone? Sure. But when this actor sings Sondheim, he

is a Sondheim specialist. When he sings pop, he growls and belts with the

authenticity of a rock star.

Speaking of authenticity, hair and makeup have been re-created by Christine

Bateman, who was there when there was a there. Little things, even in a big

overstuffed and overhyped and wrongly maligned show, mean a lot.

BROADWAY REVIEW

TABOO. Music and lyrics by Boy George, book by Charles Busch, adapted from

the original by Mark Davies. Directed by Christopher Renshaw, with choreography

by Mark Dendy, sets by Tim Goodchild, costumes by Mike Nicholls and Bobby

Pearce, lights by Natasha Katz, music direction by Jason Howland. Plymouth

Theatre, 45th Street west of Broadway. Seen at Tuesday's preview.

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