Julee Cruise, Daniel Reichard, and castin Radiant Baby(Photo: Michal Daniel)
Julee Cruise, Daniel Reichard, and cast
in Radiant Baby
(Photo: Michal Daniel)
One of the reasons New York City is such an extraordinary place is that it's constantly surprising. Among the great surprises of 1980 was the sudden proliferation of exuberant drawings on Manhattan's subway advertising boards. When the designs appeared, riders had long since accustomed themselves to the blaring graffiti that had enveloped every square inch of train exteriors. But these chalk drawings were different; stripped to essential white-on-black lines, they revealed a singular and outwardly joyful attitude towards life. Some commuters, sensing that a person of unusual talent was at compulsive work, had the foresight to remove the art for their own, ahem, private collections. But most viewers left the kinetic, sexual, sometimes slightly menacing and frequently iconic pieces in place, intuiting that the unknown artist wanted as many people as possible to gobble them up with their eyes.

Before too much time passed, the gifted culprit was fingered: young and determined Keith Haring. His need to fill public spaces with art may have been due, as his diaries indicate (they were published by Viking in 1996), to his inability to contain his urges, but it also turned out to be brilliant self-promotion. Haring put himself on the cultural map and began receiving abundant commissions -- even from Mayor Ed Koch, who had brought charges against him. The industrious lad soon became a cottage industry and a lucrative franchise. Demands from overseas gave him the opportunity to act out his homosexual impulses on more than one continent. That hedonism almost surely led to his contracting the AIDS virus and dying in 1991 at age 31.

Haring's intriguing life has now inspired a musical, Radiant Baby, which takes its title from one of his recurring figures: a tot crawling on all fours, more than likely the artist's representation of his own inner infant. The Public Theater production is directed by George C. Wolfe with his usual penchant for visual stimulation -- lots of it inherent in Haring's oeuvre -- and slightly lesser regard for substantive comment. With a book by Stuart Ross, music by Debra Barsha, and lyrics by Ross, Barsha, and Ira Gasman, this whirligig musical takes its cue from the frenetic pace at which the busy subway scribbler Haring lived. That in itself is not a bad idea. But the show doesn't communicate much beyond frenzy and therefore has the unhappy effect of making Haring -- introduced in 1988 as he relives his past and anticipates his death -- seem two-dimensional.

In Ross's view, Haring (played by Daniel Reichard, a likable look-alike who gives everything he's got to this show) is an agitated character stunned into fear and denial on learning that his days are numbered. His attempt to simplify what months and years remain to him involves riding herd on his harried assistant, Amanda (Kate Jennings Grant), and being ambivalent about an ex-lover called Carlos (Aaron Lohr) -- a composite of Haring's actual partners Juan Rivera and Gil Vasquez and maybe other, more fleeting squeezes. As Haring recalls his past, there are a few brief scenes with his supportive but baffled Kutztown, Pennsylvania parents (Julee Cruise and Michael Winther, grasping at one-dimensional roles) and a running account of his evolving subway-decorating strategy. At the end of Act I, he covers the white walls of Riccardo Hernandez's white-box set with drawings -- or, more accurately, Hernandez sends out rolling boards with Haring facsimiles on them, and Batwin + Robin add throbbing slide projections. (This realization of Haring's commendable, "bring art to the people" philosophy looks and feels a lot like the first act finale of Sunday in the Park With George, when Georges Seurat -- who died 100 years before Haring -- at last completes his masterpiece.)

Angela Robinson, Billy Porter, and cast in Radiant Baby(Photo: Michal Daniel)
Angela Robinson, Billy Porter, and cast in Radiant Baby
(Photo: Michal Daniel)
Sketching Haring's figurative dance through the halls of Manhattan fame and infamy, Ross and crew follow him to gay bars, discos, and Japanese conference tables. They surround him with a rich, beautiful, and/or artsy crowd. Those who show up include Andy Warhol, who offers uninflected financial inanities, and Susan Sontag, who speaks in art-magazinese (both celebrities are played with only modest success by Julee Cruise). Everything that happens, by the way, is seen through the eyes of three children (Anny Jules, Gabriel Enrique Alvarez, Remy Zaken) who introduce the proceedings and comment on them. They're intended to represent the school kids whom Haring mentored.

In a musical, of course, much is redeemed by a good score; Ross, Barsha, and Gasman (who contributed to only five of the two dozen or so songs) redeem little. The audience responds most favorably to a pleasingly lewd ditty dubbed "New York Makes Me," during which Haring is vamped by two sleazoid gay guys. Otherwise, Barsha's repetitive music, which always boasts beat but often misses melody, is hyped to its pulsating utmost by orchestrator Zane Mark. The lyrics are at times laughably mundane: An early song establishing Haring's artistic bent goes, "Now draw and move and move and draw and draw and move, and then / You gotta draw and move and move and draw and draw and move again." And Kate Jennings Grant, seductive in last year's Summer of '42, is saddled with poor Amanda's prosaic, haranguing babble.

There is some relief in the choreography. Fatima Robinson, evidently recruited because of her music video credentials, brings out a break-dancer at two or three points in the action to thrilling effect. (Haring was something of a pictorial break-dancer himself.) The rest of Robinson's bring-on-the-writhing-bodies routines are okay but really no more than standard, music video rave-up. The Batwin + Robin projections -- along with Emilio Sosa's Haring-palette costumes, Howell Binkley's blazing lighting, and Dan Moses Schreier's crisp sound design -- earn the show's highest marks.

As a diarist, Haring was often as obsessive as he was about everything else, though there were long stretches when he wrote nothing down because he was too busy or too occupied elsewhere. In an entry dated January 11, 1979, he confides: "A few days after the last statement in this journal, I re-read much of what I had written and felt that it was not nearly accurate enough. It seemed shallow and understated." He subsequently decided to take some time off in order to re-think his activities. The Radiant Baby collaborators have been preparing this project for some years; still, it might have been helpful if they'd followed Haring's example and taken one more hard look at their work, to which the adjectives "shallow' and "understated" could also be applied.