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
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.
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.