Not many stars can get away with making their initial entrance on stage through a toilet stall but Boy George does just that.
Mind you, he's dressed in a black tutu, a collection of eyeglasses covering his shaved head and enough makeup to sink Max Factor and Revlon combined.
The occasion, of course, is "Taboo," the London musical with a score by Boy George (real name: George O'Dowd) and produced on Broadway by recent lawsuit queen Rosie O'Donnell. This messy yet musically flavorsome show has arrived at the Plymouth Theatre, trailing clouds of controversy. Hissy fits by actors. A new choreographer. Rumors of another director waiting in the wings. If only a lot of that drama were up on the stage.
What's there, though, is a fine score, a (mostly) terrific cast and, strangely enough, some honest-to-goodness heart, real emotion that occasionally peeks through the glitter and deliberate outrageousness. They survive Charles Busch's bifurcated, often muddy book and Christopher Renshaw's slack direction, which lurches the story from scene to scene.
The plot? This is a Boy George musical in which the real Boy George doesn't play Boy George. The pop icon is on tap to portray Leigh Bowery, a flamboyant designer and performance artist who burned brightly in the 1980s and then died from complications of AIDS in 1994 at the age of 33. These days if anyone remembers Bowery at all, it's through the paintings of him by Lucian Freud.
"Taboo" is a celebration of a small slice of recent music history, a look at the 1980s London club scene, an environment that brought Boy George fame, fortune and notoriety.
One of the problems with the musical is that we have two stories competing for our attention. There's the Boy George saga and the Leigh Bowery tale, and they rarely intersect.
It also may be time to retire the flashback framework, at least for the rest of the season. "Taboo" is the third new musical this fail to begin by looking backward, a plot device used by both "The Boy From Oz" and "Wicked."
Here, two of Boy George's cohorts, Philip Sallon and Big Sue, are in the ruins of Bowery's old club, Taboo, and reminisce about the bad old days. Sallon serves as the narrator, sort of an '80s version of the master of ceremonies in "Cabaret," and introduces us to the character Boy George, who, in his first scene, is wearing a white gown and a large plume headdress.
O'Donnell has had the good sense to bring over Euan Morton from the London "Taboo" to play Boy George. He is a revelation. Morton, a small guy with a distinct, haunting voice, quietly anchors the production, grounding it in a reality that helps paper over some of the book's rougher spots.
For starters, "Stranger in This World," Morton's opening number, clearly defines Boy George's outsider status as a young gay man and gets the audience immediately on his side.
And the real Boy George's score is surprisingly theatrical. It uses only a sprinkling of his old hits such as "Karma Chameleon." Instead, the production opts for new music and lyrics that indicate the star could have a future in musical theater as a composer.
If Boy George is not really an actor (the original Bowery in London was a fierce, quite scary Matt Lucas), he does project an honesty that gets him through Bowery's big dramatic scenes, including the obligatory deathbed moment.
The large Liz McCartney and the petite Sarah Uriarte Berry portray the two women competing for Bowery's attention. Both have booming voices, particularly McCartney, who stops the show with a lament over her wasted life, "Talk Amongst Yourselves."
Jeffrey Carlson as Marilyn, a narcissistic, talent-free transvestite, is a hoot. Imagine a leggy, aggressive Marilyn Monroe – looking like she just stepped out of "Some Like It Hot" - and you'll get some idea of what Carlson expertly accomplishes.
Cary Shields is saddled with playing a composite character, an amalgam of all of Boy George's lovers. As a result, he is the most unreal character on stage, a role served up in soap-opera cliches that Shields manfully sidesteps.
Only Raul Esparza as the narrator, Philip Sallon, missteps, giving what could be the season's most extravagantly affected performance. Esparza doesn't just linger over words; he massages them into incomprehensibility.
In London, "Taboo" played The Venue, a small, low-slung auditorium just north of the raffish Leicester Square. There was just enough grunge in the place to give the meandering story a boost of authenticity. On Broadway, at the much posher Plymouth, the musical looks a little out of place. It has to depend on its hardworking cast and tough-minded score to put over what those brief, bizarre moments in the '80s were really like.
As you doubtless are tired of hearing, Rosie O'Donnell - as innocent of theater producing as she is of magazine publishing - has put $10 million into 'Taboo,' a musical about Boy George.
Her investment has encouraged her to swing her weight around - literally and figuratively - creating lots of negative publicity. As a result, your expectations are so low going in that you're unlikely to be disappointed.
The show turns out to be more tedious than awful.
The best spin you can put on it is that, on top of her legal fees in the suit against Gruner + Jahr, O'Donnell's losses on 'Taboo' will make her accountant's job next April 15 a breeze.
Had 'Taboo' opened in some East Village club with a well-stocked bar, it might have enjoyed great underground success. As a Broadway show, its prospects are limited.
The world Boy George inhabited - full of drag queens, self-indulgence, gay sex and heavy drug use - may have been provocative 20 years ago. But now, it all seems tame, if not stale, which I guess is why it is suitable for the $100-a-ticket crowd to which it provides titillation.
'Taboo' follows Boy George from his unhappy childhood to his immersion in the early '80s London club scene, his sudden if brief fame, his addiction to drugs and his rapid decline. One way of viewing the musical is as an object lesson in the consequences of addiction, since the actual Boy George, bloated and looking far older than his 42 years, appears in the show, playing his friend Leigh Bowery, who achieved fame simply for his outlandish drag outfits. He died of AIDS in 1994.
One of the problems with the show is we're never sure who is the real focus, the fictional Boy George, played with extraordinary sympathy and skill by Euan Morton, or Bowery, played rather clumsily by George.
In neither case does the dialogue by Charles Busch make the figure more than a set of showbiz cliches. All the characters around them are reduced to stereotypes.
George, for example, has a lover, Marcus, who is a photographer, apparently bisexual but more than likely just an opportunist who uses his sexual favors to George to advance his own career. Among George's other lovers is a blond transsexual, Marilyn, given to bitchy one-liners. Cary Shields and Jeffrey Carlson play the roles heartily.
Morton performs George's songs with great sensitivity, but the material doesn't go that deep. Raul Esparza, as always, brings tremendous grit to the role of a catty friend.
The most appealing work in the show is that of Liz McCartney who lends her powerful voice to the role of Big Sue, Bowery's closest friend. Sarah Uriarte Berry does well as a nastier companion.
The score uses several of Boy George's hits as well as new material, which the performers sing with great intensity, but which seldom generates much heat. (I have rarely been as aware as I was here of the sound man at the controls beefing up the volume for the songs' climactic moments.)
No expense has been spared on the costumes, especially the grotesquely outlandish ones George wears as Bowery. The show is artfully lit, and its sets are suitably tacky.
Overall, however, 'Taboo' confirms - along with 'Mamma Mia!' and 'The Boy From Oz,' all of which recycle hits from decades ago - that Broadway is becoming a purveyor of sloppy seconds from pop culture.
With a few notable exceptions, Broadway's preview buzz is usually on target. If word of mouth suggests a show is terrific, as in the case of "Hairspray," it usually is.
On the other hand, if the rumor mill grinds out tales of blood, horror and discontent, they are also, often, all too true.
They certainly were last night at the Plymouth Theatre, where the Boy George musical "Taboo" found itself as lost and bereft as a wet cod on a fishmonger's slab.
It's a pity, all the more so because it was largely a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people. And I don't mean the cast.
The "Taboo" I saw more than a year ago in London seemed an eccentric charmer. Apart from the beguiling score, much of its charm was its unpretentiousness (and, as they say, it had a lot to be unpretentious about).
It found a fitting home in a sleazy, grungy and slightly naughty old theater.
That club-like setting proved just the right kind of un-Broadway place for this un-Broadway musical, set in the tawdry London club scene, of which the club Taboo was part, in the 1980s.
The Plymouth Theatre is not that kind of place at all, and a professional Broadway producer would have seen that at once.
First-time producer Rosie O'Donnell, attracting more attention to herself than David Merrick in his heyday, seems almost virginal in her lack of experience.
The London show centered on the story of George O'Dowd, better known as Boy George, a pop phenomenon two decades ago but today often slotted into the "Where Are They Now?" pantheon of the lost but never quite forgotten.
Now, with "Taboo" crassly tarted up for Broadway, the original book by Mark Davies - admittedly no masterpiece - has been disastrously rewritten by Charles Busch, with the focus spread thin over the entire cast.
There is Boy George, as embodied by Euan Morton in a remarkable look-alike, sound-alike performance; George's friend, the performance artist Leigh Bowery (played by O'Dowd himself), and Bowery's women friends, his wife Nicola (Sarah Uriarte Berry) and Big Sue (Liz McCartney).
Of virtually equal importance are club owner Philip Sallon (Raul Esparza), Boy George's transvestite best friend Marilyn (Jeffrey Carlson) and George's photographer lover Marcus (Cary Shields) - and even the dancing boys and girls of the ensemble.
No one character attracts any compelling interest, storylines criss-cross like a crazed game of tic-tac-toe, and we're left with an uninvolving dramatic mess.
The staging by Christopher Renshaw proves competent enough, while Mark Dendy's choreography is trendy.
Tim Goodchild's scaffolded scenery looks like a low-rent "Rent," but the ornately campy costumes by Mike Nicholls and Bobby Pearce strike the right note of carefully contrived hysteria.
For the most part, the score is lovely and should be a main contender at Tony time. And the performances are much better than the material that one's heart bleeds for Morton, O'Dowd. McCartney, Berry and the scene-stealing, scenery-chewing Esparza.
What "Taboo" needed was shaping, reshaping, discarding, and a divine but shabby warehouse to play in.
In other words, it needed producing.
Aw, look at those frisky, frolicsome creatures up there, in their bright tufted costumes and motley makeup. They sure still are a peppy bunch -- leaping, pirouetting, shaking their furry selves to a bouncy Broadway beat. Who would ever have thought that the popular cats of ''Cats'' would be restored to us so soon after the end of that musical's long, long run?
Huh? Oh. Excuse me. I seem to be mixing up my cultural phenonomena from the 1980's. The revelers to be seen at the beginning of the second act of the embattled ''Taboo,'' which limped open last night at the Plymouth Theater, are not the asexual mouse chasers of Andrew Lloyd Webber's many-lived show. They are the pansexual fame chasers of a club called Taboo, a dressed-up, low-down temple to the holy trinity of sex, drugs and soft rock 'n' roll, and the sort of place where good boys and girls go bad real fast. So why do I keep waiting for one of them to step forward and belt out ''Memory''?
Such confusions of identity are perhaps to be expected when yesteryear's countercultural cool is filtered through the warm and fuzzy sensibilities of Broadway in 2003. Then again, ''Taboo,'' a disastrously overcrowded tableau of a show about hedonists who hide their hearts, can keep your head spinning for any number of reasons. And that's not even counting all the extracurricular drama that attended the show in its rehearsals and previews -- tabloid tales of battling egos and last-minute fixes overseen by no less a personality than Rosie O'Donnell, its ardent co-producer.
Consider, first of all, that the musical's score is by Boy George, who found fame as the geisha-faced lead singer of Culture Club two decades ago. The show is also, in part, the story of Boy George, played by a young actor in look-alike drag named Euan Morton, who sings some of Boy George's old hits. Then there's a fellow identified in the cast credits as George O'Dowd, who is in fact the artist formerly known (and still known, under most circumstances) as Boy George.
He portrays Leigh Bowery, a gloriously self-styled freak who turned fashion into performance art and whom Boy George knew in real life. So ''Taboo'' does at least provide the original spectacle of a pop star appearing side by side with an actor playing his younger, more girlish self. Not since Sophia Loren took on the double role of Sophia Loren and her mother for a television movie has popular culture produced such a Pirandellian plunge into nostalgia.
Such mind boggling is about the only novel form of stimulation on offer in ''Taboo,'' which is directed by Christopher Renshaw and features a book by Charles Busch. The show is adapted from an earlier version (with a book by Mark Davies) that I saw in London last year. Under the vigilant eye of Ms. O'Donnell, who personally bankrolled the $10 million musical, ''Taboo'' has definitely been Broadway-ized.
It is brighter, flashier and somewhat more animated than its London incarnation. It has jettisoned a ''Blood Brothers''-style plot about a doomed young lad from the provinces and the mother who loves him, and larded on lots of the camp insult-swapping that is the specialty of Mr. Busch, the star and writer of the spoof movie ''Die Mommie Die.''
But like its London prototype, this ''Taboo'' is essentially a singing showbiz soap opera, in which rising stars in a glittery world misplace their souls, hiding the tears of clowns beneath their greasepaint. We've already had one of these pop-driven cautionary tales this season in ''The Boy From Oz,'' which is playing across the street.
But ''Oz'' has something that ''Taboo'' does not: the solid center that is Hugh Jackman in the role of the entertainer Peter Allen. ''Taboo'' is foolishly trying to tell the story of seven different people whose relationships become as entangled as those quaint things called phone cords used to. It's not a good sign when a main character returns to the stage, and it takes you a couple of seconds to remember who he is.
In a season dense with pre-opening gossip and gremlins, ''Taboo'' has held its own in commanding unwelcome attention. For weeks, it seemed as if the show might as well be wearing a sign on its rump that said (à la Boy George), ''Do you really want to hurt me?''
The newspapers bubbled with stories of starry ego clashes, missed performances and last-minute consultations with outsiders, all given enhanced fascination by Ms. O'Donnell's simultaneous involvement in a high-profile court case with her former magazine publishers. Up to the moment of the first critics' preview, rumors persisted that the show would be postponed or perhaps even canceled altogether.
But here it is, still definitely alive, if dazed and confused. And it has enough exciting talent -- in a cast that includes bright stars-in-the-making like Raúl Esparza and Sarah Uriarte Berry -- so that no one should really want to hurt ''Taboo.'' But there's no denying that the show is a crazy, mixed-up mess in tone, structure and rhythm. Its first act inspires a kind of open-mouthed fascination, as such messes often do. By the second act, the numbness descends that comes from overdosing on plot lines.
Propelling those plot lines is an assortment of characters who live to be fabulous by night at the London dance clubs that sprang up in the era of the so-called New Romantics in the early 1980's. But while the show does feature catchy trademark Culture Club hits like ''Karma Chameleon,'' only a small percentage of its songs are dance tunes that allow the performers to execute gymnastic gyrations. (The choreographer of record is Mark Dendy, though Jeff Calhoun is also reported to have stuck his toe in.)
Instead, there are lots of teary ballads that reveal the aching loneliness beneath the elaborately costumed facades. Since each of the seven main characters gets at least one of them, they start to feel interchangeable, though they are all nicely sung. But in suggesting that beneath every outrageously enameled exterior lurks a melting marshmallow, ''Taboo'' cancels out its cool quotient.
Mr. Busch's dialogue initially tries to send up the sentimental clichés it winds up wallowing in. The evening is framed by the reminiscences of Philip Sallon (Mr. Esparza) and Big Sue (Liz McCartney), characters inspired by local London legends of the same name, as they look back to their wildly tossed salad days. (The time-traveling clubland set is by Tim Goodchild.)
The radioactive Mr. Esparza, who plays Philip in the manner of Maggie Smith doing Restoration comedy, sets the tone for recollection by saying: ''In my memories, there's always a mist or, better yet, a heavy fog. Does wonders for the complexion -- and the truth.''
This idea of a mythologizing framework is held onto for a while before disappearing into its own fog of storylines. These include Boy George's rise to stardom and descent into drugs, and the indefatigably gay Bowery's contentious relationships with two women who love him: Big Sue and Nicola (Ms. Uriarte Berry). Further cluttering things up emotionally are Boy George's ''composite lover'' Marcus (Cary Shields) and George's best friend, Marilyn (Jeffrey Carlson), who has his own aspirations to serious celebrity.
The dialogue in the first act is mostly those arch, hissing putdowns that have been a staple of drag shows for many decades. In the second act, the play actually seems to take seriously the sort of pillow-tossing nervous breakdowns and confessions of love and treason that Lana Turner devoted her later career to.
Because there are so many main characters, none are developed enough for you to care how they feel about one another. This means you tend to sit back and watch the fashion show of the club rats, though the costumes by Mike Nicholls and Bobby Pearce won't seem terribly new to anyone who has attended a Greenwich Village Halloween parade.
All the principals have their enjoyable moments. I especially liked Mr. Carlson's deadpan, drugged-out Marilyn. But the most original presence in the show is Mr. O'Dowd -- or Boy George, if you must -- as Leigh Bowery. Though the show bizarrely interjects a photo montage of the real Bowery in a song about his death, Mr. O'Dowd redefines his old acquaintance on his own terms and in ways that have little to do with the standard Boy George persona.
He has only two full numbers of his own: ''I'll Have You All,'' in which Bowery surveys sexual prospects in a urinal, and ''Ich Bin Kunst,'' in which he addresses the audience from a gallery window display in which he is presented as living art. Mr. O'Dowd invests both songs with a gravel-voiced, vaudevillian quality that reads both sinister and seductive.
When he's singing (though not, alas, when he's talking), he generates that mixed magnetic charge of attraction and repulsion that is what the show is presumably meant to be about. Otherwise, ''Cats'' had more teeth.
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 Thursday 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.
The weeks leading up to the Broadway premiere of Taboo have been riddled with tension. Previews were delayed for technical and artistic reasons, and director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun was enlisted as a consultant. Then actor Raul Esparza missed several performances because of a throat ailment. Even producer Rosie O'Donnell's legal battle with the publishers of her now-defunct magazine hung over the proceedings like a bad omen.
Yet the London-based musical about '80s pop star Boy George, which opened Thursday at the Plymouth Theatre, turns out to be a delightful experience — that is, if you leave after the first act.
Those who don't bail out during intermission will be forced to watch a giddy, goodhearted romp degenerate into a preachy melodrama in which drug abuse, AIDS, gay-bashing and the perils of fame are explored with all the imagination of a TV movie-of-the-week.
That Taboo should falter in this way is especially curious given the involvement of Charles Busch, the famously irreverent playwright whom O'Donnell recruited to beef up Mark Davies' original book. Busch, whose efforts range from The Tale of the Allergist's Wife to quirkier fare such as Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and the current film Die, Mommie, Die, would seem the perfect guy to evoke the drag queens, punks and other self-styled freaks who inhabit the show's campy urban underworld.
Certainly, flamboyant characters such as Phillip Sallon — a cross-dressing club prowler who, as portrayed by Esparza, suggests a fusion of Oscar Wilde and Frank N. Furter from The Rocky Horror Show — and outré performance artist Leigh Bowery give Busch plenty to sink his teeth into. George O'Dowd, aka Boy George himself, plays Bowery in a variety of eye-popping costumes, among them a pair of extravagant tutus that make him resemble a pregnant ballerina.
O'Dowd, who co-conceived Taboo, also wrote some lovely songs for the show, particularly for Euan Morton, the honey-voiced actor who plays Boy George. But the shiny appeal of the music and Busch's wit are tarnished as our hero is transformed from a bright-eyed, sharp-tongued young singer into a tortured, drug-addled celebrity. Though Busch and O'Dowd had a right and even a responsibility not to airbrush this part of history, they needn't have drowned it in such syrupy sentimentality.
A talented cast helps ensure that the show never sinks altogether. Jeffrey Carlson is droll as Boy George's notorious companion Marilyn, and Liz McCartney brings a booming voice and endearing presence to the role of maternal figure Big Sue. And Sarah Uriarte Berry exudes sass as Nicola, who becomes an unlikely companion to the openly gay Bowery, whom O'Dowd plays with winking relish.
Had the former Culture Club frontman only spread such levity more evenly and consistently, this Taboo would have been sweeter.
Broadway goes behind the music in "Taboo," the new tuner with a score by Boy George and headlines by Rosie O'Donnell. As the production, funded entirely by the ex-chat queen, approached opening night, O'Donnell was fighting a court battle while fending off whispers of impending disaster at the Plymouth Theater. The legal imbroglio has now been resolved, and the musical, despite talk of a postponement and a new director, opened on schedule. A disaster it isn't. A mess? Yes. But O'Donnell shouldn't lose any sleep second-guessing herself about the decision to open on time: Cosmetic changes to this rambling trawl through the club scene of 1980s London would hardly disguise its intrinsic flaws. And, really, the last thing this musical needs is more makeup -- the expenditures for mascara alone must have eaten up a big chunk of its $10 million pricetag.
"Taboo" juxtaposes the speedy rise and precipitous fall of the front man for Culture Club with the sad story of a fellow club fixture, performance artist Leigh Bowery (played, in a surreal casting gambit, by the actual Boy George). It is not, oddly enough, the season's first musical biography of a gay singer-songwriter. It's not even the first one on 45th Street. Just across the road at the Imperial is that much-dissed tuner about the life and career of Peter Allen, starring the incandescent Hugh Jackman.
Although it is mostly set in a different decade and explores a different cultural milieu, "Taboo" shares certain notable, and sometimes unfortunate, similarities with "The Boy From Oz." Merely notable: AIDS claims major characters in both. More unfortunate: A sloppy tendency to rely on narration to stitch together a wayward trajectory, and an even more damaging dependence on the cliches that seem to stick to showbiz biographies like sequins on satin. Musical theater watchers will notice glancing affinities, in substance or style, with Sam Mendes' "Cabaret," as well as "Rent," Broadway's original tale of youthful exuberance fighting the ravaging demons of drugs and AIDS, but "Taboo" is a closer colleague, in both content and, alas, quality, to its neighbor at the Imperial.
"Taboo's" ringmaster is Philip Sallon, a louche nightclub entrepreneur who claims to have discovered Boy George and who prods the story along in catty asides to the audience. He's played by Raul Esparza, who gives a flamboyant and funny if sometimes overbearing performance. Then again, a certain overbearing flamboyance seems to have been the favorite accessory of the kids who gathered to booze and dance at the nightclub that gives the show its title.
The other oddities orbiting the two central characters, celebrated in the opening number lionizing the underground culture's "fabulous freaks," are Big Sue (Liz McCartney), Bowery's best pal, a club addict by night, employment adviser by day, and a woman whose big heart matches her waistline; Nicola (Sarah Uriarte Berry), a suburban girl who attaches herself to Bowery and gradually separates him from Sue; Marilyn (Jeffrey Carlson), a bitchy Monroe worshiper who becomes George's best mate and chief hanger-on; and Marcus (Cary Shields), a straight photographer whom George picks up and soon woos to the other side of the sexual tracks.
In one of his bitchy asides, Sallon lets us know Marcus is merely a "composite of every boy that Boy George has ever been obsessed with" -- a confession that doesn't inspire confidence in the show's dramaturgy, or much interest in poor Marcus. Small wonder he becomes a pretty but mechanical device, a romantic betrayer who inspires George's descent into drugs in one minute, a crusading savior the next.
But even the musical's most outrageous characters are significantly less colorful than their makeup and costumes. (The latter are meticulous re-creations of actual outfits donned by the originals, created by designers-cum-sartorial scholars Mike Nicholls and Bobby Pearce.)
Charles Busch, author of "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife" and zesty movie parodies in which he plays the leading lady, was hired to rewrite the original book by Mark Davies. Who better to write for these histrionic seekers of fame and fabulous getups?
Busch has supplied plenty of tart zingers, but there is not much room for his particular brand of affectionate lampooning, let alone freshness or nuance, in the story's busy but diagrammatic plot. George swans from coat-check boy to international pop star to heroin-addicted victim of fame in brisk, bland fashion, meeting heartbreak in the form of that cute composite along the way.
Bowery, meanwhile, is involved in an emotional tug-of-war between his two girlfriends and succumbs to AIDS in tough but tender, pity-me-not style. The potential drama in his reckless desire to throw away his life while seeking tirelessly after art ("Ich Bin Kunst" is his big anthem) does not come through.
Euan Morton, who plays Boy George while slathered in the pop star's trademark geisha-girl makeup, is an able actor with a soft, appealing presence. His voice has the same reedy timbre as the young George's, although it is slightly darker in color. He delivers his songs, a series of pretty pop-rock laments for fame or love, in an appealing, understated style that's in contrast to the more overwrought style most of his cohorts favor.
Boy George himself doesn't seem to favor any style at all. He has an oddly subdued, even remote stage presence for someone who spent years prancing on "Top of the Pops." And he disappears too easily into Bowery's extravagantly bizarre concoctions, even if these fabulous (there's no other word) concoctions of foam, tulle, rubber and any number of other, more unlikely fabrics were intended to mask or distort the human form.
George's score, thankfully, is more assertive, and it has many likable moments. (For the record, the program lists three collaborators.) The glam-rock extravaganzas have a certain strident theatrical flair (although Mark Dendy's choreography tends toward incoherence). But it's also true that a pop songwriter doesn't necessarily stop being a pop songwriter just because he's off the charts and in a Broadway theater. Too many of the lyrics for major songs feature punchy but vague choruses that don't seem to suit any specific occasion. Big Sue's torchy "Talk Amongst Yourselves" is a case in point, and listen to the lyrics of Sallon's big aria, "Petrified," which he sings after being gay-bashed: It's hard to fathom what he's going on about.
Audiences addicted to VH1's "I Love the '80s" and "I Love the '80s Strikes Back" may get a big kick out of the show's precise re-creations of the various style trends that marked the decade, all scrupulously mimicked here. Fashionistas will be happy to treat it as a festive parade of snaps from the pages of I.D. and the Face. But "Taboo" provides little more than such incidental diversions.
Theatergoers with a real affection for these colorful figures may be disconcerted to see a culture that celebrated its outsider status cavorting in facsimile in the corny confines of the show's plot. (Count me among them: I spent a significant chunk of the '80s in nightclubs and have the mortifying photos to prove it. Heck, I even bought Marilyn's album -- and loved it!)
A soap opera is a soap opera, no matter how fabulous the freaks.