Fledgling Broadway producer Rosie O’Donnell sank $10 million of her own money into "Taboo," a show she first encountered in a tiny theater in London’s West End. Apparently a lot of work went into rewriting and transforming the show into a big new production, yet the result is rambling chaotic, spastic, and self-conscious.
All about cross-dressers in the London club scene during the 1980s, "Taboo" certainly dazzles with glitter and gaiety (yes, that kind). But more to the point, your enjoyment will depend on how much enthusiasm you have for ex-rock star Boy George, who not only stars (though not as himself), but who wrote the entire score.
Boy George, whose real name is George O’Dowd, is famously recognized as the lead singer of the Culture Club. He plays a principal role in the show as as the flamboyant London designer and performance artist Leigh Bowery, who debauches and dies of drugs and AIDS, like many others in that en travestie defined culture. Boy George, whom so many remember singing "Karma Chameleon" in the colorful music video, unfortunately has, as a mature adult, very little stage presence. This musical based on his life story would have been greatly improved if his own role had been reduced to a cameo.
The character Boy George is played by Euan Morton with considerable charm and warmth, at least in contrast to the more in-your-face acting and singing of the others. Morton, who originated the role in London, is quietly appealing even as he is generally obliged to peer out from behind his geisha girl greasepaint while sashaying about in Bowery’s outlandish outfits.
Less prominent to the plot line that blithely traces over the meteoric rise and fall of both Boy George and Bowery, as well as a few of the fellow self-proclaimed "freaks" within their outre oeuvre, but key to show’s central conceit is Philip Sallon (manically played by Raul Esparza), the nightclub’s glowering emcee who serves as the show’s narrator. He dispenses inside information with outside detachment and takes immediate control of the action and its by-sex-possessed and by-fashion-obsessed poseurs. It is for Sallon, who claims to have discovered Boy George, to provide the bitchy asides and commentary that propels the show beginning with "Freak: Ode to Attention Seekers," a rousing opening salvo for him and the company.
One might think of "Taboo" as a kind of decadent underground circus where the freaks, buoyed by pills and booze, danced the night and their lives away. Most figure decoratively in the dramatic and musical landscape. Cary Shields is excellent as Marcus, a good-looking photographer, who, as Sallon informs us, is a composite of all Boy George’s lovers. Marcus, fascinated by Boy George, goes from straight to gay faster than he can sing "I See Through You."
Although she is cruelly over-miked in her big number, "Talk Amongst Yourselves," Liz McArtney is otherwise poignant in the role of Big Sue, Bowery’s best friend. As George’s best friend Marilyn (as in Monroe), Jeffrey Carlson is amusingly gaunt. Sarah Uriarte Berry is fine enough in her role as Nicola, a disingenuous provincial who creates a wedge between Bowery and Sue.
Charles Busch (author of "The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife" and "leading lady" in many of own priceless parodies) has presumably spiced up the original book by Mark Davies. Let’s just say that there is plenty of spice but not much substance. Many of Boy George’s 22 songs, including "Pretty Lies," sung by Morton; "Love is a Question Mark;" an almost operatic quartet sung by Shields, Morton, O’Dowd, and Berry, and the extravagant Follies-like number "Everything Taboo," are musically sophisticated. Kevin Frost gets billing as a "co-composer," whatever that means.
The costumes are certainly a trip back to the ’80s. Co-created by designers Mike Nicholls and Bobby Pierce, they are often as fanciful as they are intentionally frightful. Tim Goodchild’s flashy unit setting responds well to Natasha Katz’s hot lighting. The dancers, under the spell of choreographer Mark Dendy, can be praised for their feverish perseverance. In its current inflated form, "Taboo" may not be the show that its director Christopher Renshaw originally conceived with Boy George, but it is the kind of demented entertainment that might generate a cult following if O’Donnell decides to spend another $10 million to promote it (and herself). Two stars: Maybe you should have stayed home.
Taboo, Plymouth Theater, 236 West 45th Street, New York. Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.