Experiencing the stultifying "Taboo," you feel as if you could be standing on a shaky pier on the edge of theaterland, waving the SS Broadway Musical goodbye.
This sort of sensation comes on those dispiriting nights when big, new, expensive shows bearing all the telltale signs of actual entertainment -- starry names, busy choreography, lighting -- reveal how far the musical has strayed from traditional craftsmanship. During these peculiar events, you find yourself questioning the entire institution of Broadway, wondering whether anyone will ever again levitate an audience with imaginative songs painstakingly woven into a story of bona fide human consequence.
The feeling will pass, of course, because the regenerative impulse in your psyche guides you to the memory of a recent success like "Avenue Q," a witty, melodious sendup of urban mores and post-graduation angst. But still, Broadway continues to shelter hokum like "Taboo," a production with such an acute case of meaning-deprivation that you almost forget what's happening as it's happening.
"Taboo," which opened last night at the Plymouth Theatre, is what you might call a popsical. A few old numbers by the '80s singer Boy George have been stitched together with a crop of new ones to tell the life story of Boy George, who is also in the show, although not playing himself. He is instead portraying the flashy fashion buccaneer Leigh Bowery, a role that has been absurdly inflated. (Come to think of it, pudgy ol' Boy George, ne George O'Dowd, looks a bit inflated now, too.) That the songs don't reveal much of anything about such minor elements as character -- or rather, that they reveal the same things over and over and over again -- doesn't seem to have given a moment's pause to director Christopher Renshaw and O'Dowd, who jointly conceived the show.
Nor, for that matter, is much attention given to the fact that nothing about Boy George's life suggests itself as intriguing material for musical theater. As much as anything, it's a show about style, and the insecurity and bitterness that style often masks. Turns out, however, that little happened to Boy George except fame and drugs, the fame he shamelessly courted and the drugs he religiously snorted. And then, surprise, surprise, he discovers that fame is a drug and he needs to go somewhere to get the stardom monkey off his back. It's not into the heart of darkness but into that required episode from the tabloid handbook, the "temporary setback," where "Taboo" leads. And in this empty age of celebrity veneration, that's all that producers seem to think we want.
The show's lead producer, Rosie O'Donnell, who put up the 10 mil to bring "Taboo" to Broadway, is doubtless hoping that Boy George's fan base, now settled comfortably into responsible adulthood, will groove on nostalgia, the sentiment that drives most jukebox shows. In the show's skeletal plus department, the production employs a young actor, Euan Morton, who should satisfy groupies craving images of Boy George in his prime; Morton has a pleasing voice for ballads and is a convincing carbon copy, donning Kabuki makeup and stringy wigs.
The wasted actors -- as in misused -- include the estimable Raul Esparza, playing a cross-dressing London club promoter who narrates this musical-in-flashback. Esparza is so fired-up here you want the stagehands to keep him away from matches; he's a combustible presence, but if the performance were any more intense, it could embarrass even Mandy Patinkin.
For what seems a transparent reason -- giving O'Dowd a role in the show commensurate with his yearning for attention -- the part of Bowery has been pumped up ludicrously. In fact, it upstages Morton's Boy George. (O'Dowd even gets the last curtain call.) Bowery was an eccentric who died of AIDS complications in the mid-1990s; his talent was as a couturier of the grotesque, designing bizarre costumes he wore himself. He and O'Dowd traveled in the same circles, and Bowery even appeared in Boy George videos.
But in no revelatory way do their lives intersect, and there is not much of an attempt by the authors to justify the paralleling of their stories. The book, credited to Charles Busch, is amazingly lame, rife with the brand of bland cliches -- "You just don't get it, do you?"; "We're just not good for each other" -- that Busch would mock in his own campy oeuvre.
The Buddha-like O'Dowd proves to be a weirdly robotic actor; he tends to respond to other actors as if he's trying to figure out where their voices are coming from. He has one juicy song in the second act, "Ich Bin Kunst," that culminates in a display of Bowery's eerie fashion sense. But its impact is vitiated minutes later by his appallingly maudlin death scene; in front of Bowery's body, a nurse pulls a white hospital curtain, onto which are projected home movies of the real Bowery, as an actress sings an equally mawkish tribute to him called "Il Adore."
In contrast to the antiseptic bio-musical "The Boy From Oz," about the singer Peter Allen, the Boy George show at least does not gloss over the bad choices made by its protagonist. In any future revival, however, the authors would be well advised to add "Taboo" itself to that list.
Taboo, book by Charles Busch; music and lyrics by Boy George. Directed by Christopher Renshaw. Choreography, Mark Dendy; sets, Tim Goodchild; costumes, Mike Nicholls and Bobby Pearce; lighting, Natasha Katz; sound, Jonathan Deans; music supervision, John McDaniel; orchestrations, Steve Margoshes. With Sarah Uriarte Berry, Jeffrey Carlson, Liz McCartney. Approximately 2 hours 40 minutes. At the Plymouth Theatre, 236 W. 45th St., Manhattan. Call 212-239-6200.
Boy George in his prime.