As a show of good faith, let’s start with the pluses. First, there’s the sheer fascination of watching a man — George O’Dowd, known around the world since the early ’80s as Boy George — appear on stage in a musical wherein his up-and-down life unfolds before him. To be more precise, the show is an approximation of the man’s life; whopping liberties have apparently been taken with the music-world phenomenon’s climb to fame, which began in wishfully decadent London clubs like the now-defunct Taboo. O’Dowd also seems sanguine about trotting out his unrewarding romances, his subsequent descent into drugs, and his ultimate rehabilitation.
It’s further fascinating to watch Boy George — now 42, portly, and more than ready to be billed as Man George — play not himself but the late performance artist and Lucian Freud model Leigh Bowery. A large-scale lad for whom the description “cross-dresser” would be sorrowfully inadequate, Bowery was making a name for himself in gaudy London boites as well as in swanky galleries like Anthony D’Offay’s at the same time that Boy George emerged. Bowery’s outrageous costume designs and gender-bending escapades, not to mention the heartaches and breakthroughs they yielded, set him on a path somewhat parallel to Boy George’s in the years immediately following David Bowie and Glitter Rock and leading to the era of the so-called New Romantics. (According to the script, Jean Cocteau and Man Ray are earlier influences.)
Yes, it’s a strange treat to watch O’Dowd, who continues to radiate androgynous sweetness despite his advancing years, impersonate an intrepid colleague. This is especially so in a number titled “Ich Bin Kunst” (read, “I’m Art with a Capital ‘A'”), wherein co-costume designers Mike Nicholls and Bobby Pearce replicate Bowery’s astonishingly colorful and shape-shifting work. (Nicholls and Pearce don’t do so badly with the non-Bowery eye-blasters, either; nor does hair and makeup designer Christine Bateman.)
Speaking of the songs, which Boy George wrote: They’re a motley collection and not dependent on his ’80s repertoire, which includes “Karma Chameleon” and “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” Those chart-toppers aren’t rendered in complete versions here, nor are the words “Culture Club” heard in the show. Instead, Boy George — who rarely deals in clichés or even in coherent thoughts — has wrought a score full of unexpected melodic lines and offbeat lyric ruminations. In “Dress to Kill,” a song that establishes the music-maker’s philosophy, he declares straightforwardly that “More is more and less is less” — a credo that has been taken to heart by just about everyone on the creative team. And while some of the numbers are too brief to register, there are such lovely items as “Love is a Question Mark” (a touching quartet) and “Out of Fashion” (a quintet that subtly underlines the musical’s not-very-well-articulated themes of sexual identity and change). There’s also a hilarious urinal number, “I’ll Have You All.”
Any assessment of these songs leads naturally to an assessment of the singers, of which Taboo has seven show-stopping if over-miked examples. Boy George, billed modestly under the title as George O’Dowd, is the most prominent, and he retains his dulcet sound. Euan Morton as Boy George does an uncanny vocal and physical impersonation. Raúl Esparza, playing one Philip Sallon with his standard bravado, wails effectively. So do Liz McCartney as Leigh Bowery’s buddy Big Sue (herself a Freud model); Sarah Uriarte Berry as Bowery’s assistant and eventual wife Nicola; Jeffrey Carlson as the bored and demanding transvestite Marilyn; and Cary Shields as Marcus, supposedly a composite of all the men whom Boy George bedded in his search for elusive true love.
These thrilling performers add up to an embarrassment of riches, but much of the rest of Taboo is just an embarrassment. Boy George himself and director Christopher Renshaw are billed as having had the light bulb for the enterprise go on over their heads; Mark Davies took a first shot at the libretto, which has been tarted up stateside by the redoubtable Charles Busch. What with all of these people cooking the book (as compared to the Gruner + Jahr folks, who may have cooked their books in a different way) and with Rosie O’Donnell apparently having had much to say about a show on which she has spent millions, it’s difficult to ascertain who’s really responsible for what or to decide where blame for the choppy narrative should ultimately be laid. Many of the bitchy-funny lines that crop up during the hectic action would seem to be Busch’s additions, but who knows? Suffice it to note that, as of opening night, no one had figured out how to tell the O’Dowd and Bowery stories clearly — nor had they found a way to fit the stories of Big Sue and the ambitious Nicola into the mix.
Taboo is narrated by Big Sue and the Esparza character, Philip Sallon, although Big Sue informs the audience only seconds after Sallon starts dishing that nothing he says can be trusted. It was unwise to throw what follows into such doubt. Sallon himself admits that the Shields figure, Marcus, is a composite; if so, what’s to be made of the volatile Marcus/Boy George affair and its ugly unraveling? And what, particularly, is to be made of Marcus’s leaking word of Boy George’s drug addiction to the press? (In the London edition, George’s brother was the snitch.) Although the facts of Boy George’s life that have been made public jibe with what the show reports, chunks of other behind-the-headlines events seem suspect.
Rosie O’Donnell’s Taboo — co-produced, incidentally, with Adam Kenright — faces other obstacles. Coming along when it does, it could be retitled The Boy From Odd, Fame on Leicester Square, or Radiant Baby Boy. Sequences in the show that involve the pursuit of notoriety, unfulfilling homosexual liaisons, AIDS deaths, and composite boyfriends are pale echos of the already pale echos in recent gay-themed musicals that have failed to break through the bar of mediocrity. Yes, actor-singers O’Dowd, Morton, Esparza, McCartney, Carlson, Berry, and Shields have distinguished themselves, as have the show’s costume designers. But director/co-conceiver Christopher Renshaw (noticeably not replaced during pre-opening travails), choreographer Mark Dendy (helped pre-opening by an unbilled Jeff Calhoun), scenic designer Tim Goodchild, lighting designer Natasha Katz, and sound designer Jonathan Deans haven’t done enough to separate the show from the rest of the tired pack.
At their best, Leigh Bowery and Boy George may have been Art with a capital “A,” but too much of Taboo is commerce with a small “c.”