Taboo Music and lyrics by Boy George. Book by Charles Busch. Adapted from the original book by Mark Davies. Original concept by Boy George and Christopher Renshaw. Directed by Christopher Renshaw. Choreographed by Mark Dendy. Music Supervision and Vocal, Dance, Incidental Music Arrangements by John McDaniel. Scenic design by Tim Goodchild. Co-costume design by Mike Nicholls, Bobby Pearce. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Sound design by Jonathan Deans. Hair and makeup design by Christine Bateman. Co-Composer Kevan Frost. Orchestrations by Steve Margoshes. Music Co-Writers John Themis & Richie Stevens. Music Coordinator Michael Keller. Music Director Jason Howland. Dialect Coach Stephen Gabis. Fight direction by Rick Sordelet. Cast: Sarah Uriarte Berry, Jeffrey Carlson, Raúl Esparza, Donnie R. Keshawarz, Liz McCartney, Euan Morton, George O'Dowd, Cary Shields, Jennifer Cody, Dioni Michelle Collins, Brooke Elliott, Felice B. Gajda, William Robert Gaynor, Curtis Holbrook, Lori Holmes, Jennifer K. Mrozik, Nathan Peck, Alexander Quiroga, Jody Reynard, Asa Somers, Denise Summerford, James Tabeek, Gregory Treco.
The music, the drugs, the smoke, the cross dressing! Ah, the early 1980s London club scene! A great locale in which to set a musical, right? Maybe, but that musical isn't quite Taboo, which just opened at the Plymouth Theatre. Taboo is well meaning if it's nothing else; underneath its shabby period glitz is a heart just longing to be revealed.
But that well-intentioned heart is lost somewhere underneath the messy show Taboo has become, as the show's creators have never satisfactorily determined what the show is or needs to be. Is Taboo a generic backstager, detailing the rise to fame of gay pop star Boy George (Euan Morton) and his attempts to stay at the top when tempted by sex and drugs? Or is it a concept musical detailing the strange life and death of fashion designer and performance artist Leigh Bowery (George O'Dowd, the real Boy George, and the show's composer)?
Librettist Charles Busch, adapting Mark Davies's original book from the London production, is apparently not sure. He divides the show between the two stories, primarily George in the first act and primarily Bowery in the second. He draws some connections - Bowery representing the artistic spirit that gave rise to Boy George, and so on - but the two stoires ultimately operate in two very different and often incompatible universes.
Busch tries to bring them together with two narrators, nightclub promoter Philip Sallon (Raúl Esparza), who claims to have discovered and first inspired George, and Bowery's tireless friend and de facto protector Big Sue (Liz McCartney). Both meet in the ruins of the club Taboo for a photo shoot at the end of the era, and their reminiscences give way to the story. Each has different perspectives about the action, with neither feeling shame in correcting or questioning the other - "Must you be so disgustingly factual?" goes one typical question. Sallon wants the best story, Big Sue wants something closer to accuracy.
What the audience gets is less clear. Esparza and McCartney's show-long interchange provides needed humor and variety to the show, but does little to illuminate much about the story and characters; a straight-on narrative would have fewer negative side effects. We might even then get a more balanced look at the secondary characters, now little more than ciphers; Bowery's protégé and eventual wife Nicola (Sarah Uriarte Berry), George's less successful but no less flamboyant friend Marilyn (Jeffrey Carlson), or George's long-term boyfriend (named Marcus Composité in the evening's best joke), played by Cary Shields, are all on hand with plenty to sing, but little impression to make.
Director Christopher Renshaw never finds a way to bring the show's elements together, to give Taboo the one central core it truly needs. He comes close with the show's physical production - Tim Goodchild's dilapidated club unit set, Natasha Katz's coolly calculated "bad trip" lighting, the colorful and gorgeously overdone makeup of Christine Bateman, and especially the costume design, an endless parade of beautiful, multi-hued grotesqueries by Mike Nicholls and Bobby Pearce. But the Plymouth seems too big to capture the exact feel Renshaw is looking for; while the show undoubtedly played better in a smaller house in London, one can only dream about how Taboo would play in its ideal New York venue, Studio 54.
Boy George's score is one of surprising sensitivity and theatricality, heavily (and appropriately) influenced by rock, but with plenty of character and cohesion. Some songs lean a bit toward the generic - George's establishing song "Stranger in This World," the quartet "Love is a Question Mark," the "fall from grace" number "Out of Fashion," and the sweeping finale "Come on in From the Outside," but even they are solid enough in composition and emotional grounding to work within the context of the show. Other songs, including performance art turns for Bowery and big ensemble club numbers, capture the era's music and look well (with some help from Mark Dendy's choreography). Three Culture Club songs make an appearance ("Do You Really Want to Hurt Me," "Church of the Poison Mind," and "Karma Chameleon"), but are responsibly used and never dwelt upon; the bulk of the score is new.
One question: Kevan Frost is given a "Co-Composer" credit, and John Themis and Richie Stevens are billed as "Music Co-Writers." Who actually wrote what? Regardless, Steve Margoshes's orchestrations, John McDaniel's musical supervision and arrangements, and Jason Howland's musical direction of the ten-piece band keep everything sounding good. And, with but a few exceptions, sound designer Jonathan Deans doesn't amplify things so loudly the music becomes impossible to hear.
The show's two best songs - "Talk Amongst Yourselves" and "Petrified" - are sung by the show's two best performers, McCartney and Esparza respectively. The first is delivered with such vocal power and the second with such cataclysmic restraint, that they're the show's only truly thrilling and chill-inducing moments. None of the other performers match up to their standards: Morton is fine as George, but never has much of a commanding star presence; supporting players Berry, Shields, and Carlson never quite know what to do with their underdeveloped roles; and Boy George himself, with the magnetic aura Morton should have, is a unique, eye-opening presence, but not as captivating and confident a theatre performer as might be ideal for the role. His gravitas as Bowery is welcome, but he could go much further.
Then again, so could everyone involved in Taboo. There's enough here to suggest the show that so excited lead producer (and sole investor) Rosie O'Donnell in London, but never enough to justify it as the exciting, invigorating show it so desperately wants to be. Taboo, unlike its subjects, is mostly harmless and non-confrontational; that may be right for a broad-appeal Broadway musical, but Taboo is never quite that, either. Boy George, Bowery, and Taboo's potential audiences all deserve a bit more.