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|A CurtainUp Review
From the moment you enter the Plymouth, Tim Goodchild's Rent-like set seems to declare "I may have started small but I was meant for bigger things" (Taboo which enticed Rosie to part with $10 million dollars was actually a church basement converted into a comedy club with cramped seats for 320 people). And there's flaw number one. Taboo unlike the recently opened Wicked (review) has a fairly narrowly defined target audience which excludes kids, the elderly and the old. Consequently, this American premiere might have worked better with a trial run in another small, out of the mainstream space like the Jane Street Theater; alternatively, it would have had a smoother landing at the larger Studio 54 or at the Henry Miller Theater which have more of the flavor of Taboo's 1980s club scene. But Studio 54 and the Henry Miller are both booked and the latter is soon to be demolished so Taboo must thus sink or swim at the more conventional Plymouth.
If the show sinks, it will be as much as a result of Charles Busch's mishmash of a rewrite of the original Mark Davies book as any thumbs down reviews. If it swims, it will be due to its high caliber talent, the music and the spectacular costumes.
Topping the swim rather than sink elements are the performances. The new Taboo is fortunate to have the London production's Euan Morton to again portray Boy George, the flamboyant cross-dresser, DJ, and singer-songwriter whose group, Culture Club, produced a string of international mega hits, several of which are featured "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me", "Church of the Poison Mind" and "Karma Chamelon"). His voice is as silky as the kimonos he likes to wear and his physical resemblance to his role model is particularly striking when he turns blonde in the second act. Since our London critic's comment on the resemblance was made from her vantage point in a seat close to the real O'Dowd, that famous audience member has now become part of the cast. Even though his acting hardly matches his singing and songwriting skills, his playing Boy George's even more flamboyant contemporary, Leigh Bowery, is a coup-de--casting. (Like Lizzie Loveridge I did also sit near a notable audience member, producer Rosie O'Donnell, who at intermission welcomed the large cadre of second night critics).
Even though the five friends and lovers of George and Leigh are rather undernourished in terms of characterization -- a bit like understuffed accent pillows -- the actors portraying them are terrific. Raúl Esparza is probably the show's real standout as Phillip Sallone one of two narrators. Liz, McCartney, his co-narrator and Bowery's best pal Big Sal, is also excellent. Esparza's "Petrified" and McCartney's "Talk Amongst Yourselves" are through-the-roof show stoppers. Jeffrey Carlson, who made a big impression as the son of the troubled couple in Edward Albee's The Goat (review) makes a feast from the meagerly developed role of the petulant, hungry for her fifteen minutes of fame drag queen Marilyn.
The music and lyrics by Boy George (Kevan Frost, John Themis and Richie Stevens are given unspecific co-composer and co-music writer credit) enjoyably embody the spirit of the era. Though the band perched on both levels of the scaffolding is loud the amplification, for a welcome change, does not drown out the often worth hearing lyrics.
Mike Nicholls' and Bobby Pearce's costumes and Christine Bateman's hair and makeup are eye-poppingly imaginative -- including such memorable items as a long lavender feather coat worn by Esparanza and O'Dowd's entrance (from a urinal!) in grotesque Kabuki makeup and a puff-skirted black dress over glittery leggings.
To get back to the book that is Taboo's big boo-boo, the unstoppable leak in a slick and smooth sailing boat. Busch, who in his younger days could have fit right into this show as Marilyn, is a seasoned script writer and some of his choices for revamping the original book are good. It made sense for him to transform the teen-aged boy who leaves home to become a photographer into Boy George, saving the photography ambitions for O'Dowd's initially in-the-closet lover Marcus. (Check out our London review for more details about the original plot). There are indeed interesting and valid parallels between Boy George's story and that of Leigh Bowery -- both yearned for fame, but while George became famous in his own right and survived a disastrous flirtation with heavy drugs; Bowery's fame was peripheral to the career of painter Lucien Freund who used him as a model and his life was cut short by AIDS. However, in trying to give equal time to both, Busch fails to make a valid connection and thus serves up two confusingly unfocused half stories, neither of which are helped by the already mentioned sketchiness of the subsidiary characters.
Boy George is of course the most widely known of the show's mostly taken from real life club crawlers. But, just as one gets a sense of this being a Boy George musical, there's a flip-flop in emphasis and Leigh Bowery takes over the show, complete with a lengthy memorial in the form of a series of images of the real Bowery projected onto the curtain drawn around his death bed. Unfortunately, all these disparate elements seem beyond Christopher Renshaw's directorial mending skills.
So there you have it, the gold and the gold dust. If you go for the gold -- a fun visit back to the London trendsetters who made outrageous self-presentation an art form -- be prepared to also settle for the gold dust: a sudsy rehash of a popera in which boy gets boy and career, boy loses boy and career, boy makes a comeback and love (sort of) triumphs.
Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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