On paper, it appears that the 2007-2008 theater season in Cincinnati will give audiences many options to see new and interesting shows, especially musicals, rarely or never seen previously in our city. Radiant Baby, mounted by New Stage Collective, is one of the first of the season and surely one of the most unique. In one of the few productions presented since its initial Off-Broadway production, New Stage breathes life into the piece, thanks to its talented cast, strong direction and vivid choreography, all of which help to overcome the material's shortcomings.
Radiant Baby chronicles the life of 1980s artist Keith Haring. Glimpses of his childhood and introduction to New York provide a foundation for the eccentric artist he was to become. The audience is also shown his transformation from art student to renegade subway graffiti icon to commercial success, and finally to his prolific output in the final years of his life before succumbing at age 30 to AIDS.
The book by Stuart Ross, as the lyrics that open the show suggest, focuses on the life, the world and the art of Keith Haring. Ross wisely uses a Greek chorus of three children to help tell Keith's life story. But, even with the back and forth storytelling thanks to the use of flashbacks, the basic plot seems somewhat routine. While seeing the world, art and life of this person is necessary and engaging, more effort should have been given toward exploring the heart, mind and soul of Haring. In too many instances, only the surface of an issue or emotion is scratched when the audience would prefer that it be opened up and exposed. Also, too many characters come across as one-dimensional composites of the many unique people in Keith's life.
The score for Radiant Baby also seems pedestrian in comparison with the subject that it covers. While the pulsating music for the opening number "Faster Than The Speed of Life" and nightclub performance pieces "Paradise/Instant Gratification" perfectly captures the necessary pace and tone of the show, composer Debra Barsha offers few musical moments during the rest of the piece that rise above a level of sufficient. The lyrics by Ms. Barsha, Mr. Ross and Ira Gasman provide flashes of wit and insight, but also suffer at times from being too everyday and predictable to describe Haring's world, and some of the phrases don't sing particularly well.
Thankfully, New Stage Collective is able to present this piece with an energy and excitement that is indeed what Haring's life seemed to suggest. Alan Patrick Kenney makes numerous bold and risky directorial choices which provide handsome payoffs in nearly every instance. There is frenetic life in his staging, along with apt moments of erotic sexuality that provide humor and show the culture of the 1980s New York in which Haring lived. A large cast on a small performance space usually means limited choreography, but Adrienne Clark's fluid, active and period appropriate dances are surprisingly well executed and visually interesting. Clark's choreography greatly assists in keeping the frenzied pace of New Stage's production running on all cylinders. Steven Milloy capably leads a rockin' six-piece band.
Adam Standley captures the nerdy outsider quality of Haring in his portrayal of the artist (and is visually reminiscent of the film character Napoleon Dynamite). Standley carefully balances the emotional joy, manic melancholy, love for children and spastic energy of Keith as he searches for his creative voice. The hurt that Haring feels when accused by the art world that he loved of being a commercial sell-out can be clearly seen through Standley. The supporting players, Kera Halbersleben (Amanda), Mikhail Roberts (Carlos) and David Ryan Speer (Tseng Kwong Chi), perform admirably in less showy roles. All of the ensemble members display strong vocal, dance and acting abilities, but Adrienne Clark (Andy Warhol), Joey Stone (Diva Man) and Julie Conuel (Diva Woman) especially shine in their moments in the spotlight.
The scenic design by Samantha Reno effectively uses multiple levels, various angled pieces, and lots of creative props without breaking the bank. The lighting by Sean M. Savoie includes stark and distinct changes to communicate scene changes and for dramatic effect. The fun costumes by George Sarofeen accurately reflect the '70s and '80s. The only drawback to New Stage Collective's production is poor sound design. Quite a number of audience members could be heard complaining about their inability to understand many of the lyrics during the opening weekend, and efforts should be made to correct these problems immediately.
As written, Radiant Baby is interesting as a theatrical piece due to its subject matter, Keith Haring, and the world in which he lived. While the book and score aren't poorly rendered, they do little more than provide the basics. New Stage Collective in Cincinnati is able to bring the artist and his art alive, thanks to the performers and production team of designers, choreographer and director. Visit www.newstagecollective.com or call (513) 621-3700 for tickets and more information. The production continues through July 15, 2007.