For the way it looks, moves, and feels, Radiant Baby is a must-see show. The new musical at the Public Theater dealing with the life of the iconic 1980s New York artist, Keith Haring, is one of the most perfect examples on display in New York of what the physical shape of a musical today is, and where it's going tomorrow.
For this, thank director George C. Wolfe, who has seen that the show moves - as a lyric describes Harin - "at the speed of life." What was the last musical to move so fluidly? When is the last time the way a musical looked and moved - seamlessly fusing the lights (here provided by Howell Binkley), costumes (Emilio Sosa), and sets (Riccardo Hernandez, his most dazzling work to date) - was itself a work of art?
In its production, Radiant Baby is one of the most exciting musicals New York has seen in years.
In its material, it's one of the most conventional.
That's the most puzzling thing about Radiant Baby, that it takes someone with Haring's uniquely creative outlook and output and reduces it to the mundane, all the while wrapping it in a wildly entertaining package as infectious as Haring's art itself.
Take, for example, the songs. With music by Debra Barsha and lyrics by (variously) Ira Gasman, Stuart Ross, and Barsha, the songs are heavily steeped in the 1980s style, whether rock, punk, or even (occasionally) pop. But just the titles alone suggest quite a bit: "Faster Than the Speed of Life," "Draw and Move," "Spirit of the Line," "Get Me To New York," "Art Attack," "Flavor of the Week," and so on. As innovative as Radiant Baby's production is, its score - despite its completely cohesive nature - will do absolutely nothing to push the genre forward.
The book (by Stuart Ross) is much the same. Haring, a misunderstood yet talented young man comes to New York in the late 1970s, is seduced by both its artistic and its sexual culture, and becomes a hero of the streets when, in search of space for his drawings, takes chalk to empty panels on subway walls, becoming the artistic hero of his generation. But with success comes a price. He overextends himself artistically, is accused of selling out, and suffers major financial failures before a final last burst of creative energy and popular success that he rides on until his death from AIDS in 1990.
Yes, you've seen it before; just the details are different.
The performances are well in keeping with this - powerful voices, less intoxicating personalities. Daniel Reichard, as Keith Haring, gives a marathon performance, both vocally and physically. He's a font of energy as unbridled and infinite as Haring's own work suggested he was. It could well be a star-making performance, but how many roles will give Reichard all the opportunities he has here?
Every other role is smaller, but they're all capably filled. Kate Jennings Grant is strong (if underutilized) as Keith's exasperated secretary, Aaron Lohr does fine as Keith's representative boyfriend but is saddled with an underdefined character and the score's most maudlin song ("I Really Loved You"), Julee Cruise finds plenty of comedy in both Haring's mother and his artistic mentor Andy Warhol, and three kids (Anny Jules, Gabriel Enrique Alvarez, and Remy Zaken) narrate most of the story and define Haring's devotion to the artistic development of children. Angela Robinson and Billy Porter really stand out in the chorus, and if Radiant Baby runs long at the Newman, their electrifying work in the show's biggest production numbers, "Paradise" and "Instant Gratification" will surely require major roof repair.
But the constantly moving set pieces, the eye-popping array of projections (the striking work of Batwin + Robin Productions) as colorful in hue as they are in motion, the incorporation of Haring's own work into most every design, the dizzying, brilliant scene in which Haring rises to the top of New York popular culture contrasted with the blank canvas his life becomes as his death nears... The production sets Radiant Baby apart; it makes it seem like all musicals should look and behave just this way.
Yet, even at its most baldly emotional as the end of the second act looms, Radiant Baby can still enervate and touch your emotions; the group numbers "Quartet" and "Stay" that close the show are, for all their familiar sentiment and blatantly manipulative musical structures, moving and even inspiring. They, like the rest of the show, demonstrate the value in embracing old traditions and creating new ones.
Must Radiant Baby - or any new musical - open up new territory? That's open to debate. But whether Radiant Baby is the first step in a new journey or another step in an older one is immaterial - it lessens Radiant Baby's shine not a whit.