Rosie O'Donnell, Boy George buoy 'Taboo'

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Nov. 28, 2003 at 3:41 PM
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 28 (UPI) -- Former TV show host Rosie O'Donnell's vanity production of "Taboo," a musical about the freak show club scene in London in the 1980s, looks like a real winner despite dire predictions that it would be a $10 million Broadway flop, adding to O'Donnell's recent financial woes.

O'Donnell, the sole investor in the autobiographical show with music and lyrics by the gender-bending British entertainer Boy George, shows up at the Plymouth Theater almost every night to cheer on the cast and tell the audience how much it ought to love her expensive tribute to an outrageous era that reveled in quirky sex, killer drugs, and rock music.

It's one way of keeping a shaky investment from going down the drain, although it defies theater conventions.

The show opened with weak advance ticket sales due to a storm of published gossip about clashing egos involved in its production and last minute doctoring to make it stageworthy that delayed previews. Reviews ranged from mixed to scathingly bad, and showbiz pundits' predictions concerning its survival were almost all negative.

Despite the recent court trial of O'Donnell's contract dispute with the publisher of her defunct magazine Rosie, a disaster for both sides, she found time to appear on a round of TV talk shows to promote "Taboo" and involved herself in an e-mail advertising blitz, radio commercials, and even the design of promotional stickers. Ticket sales have begun to pick up and every performance ends with a standing ovation.

"For six years on TV I sold everyone else's shows with great success," said O'Donnell, a tireless promoter of Broadway. "So I think the fact that I am producing this and putting my money in it speaks volumes to people who for six years went to see shows based on my own enthusiasm. I know it sounds so cocky to say this show is great, but I know it's great."

One of the possibly confusing aspects of the show was casting of Boy George (real name: George O'Dowd) not as himself but as Leigh Bowery, Boy George's friend and rival who designed fantastic costumes and Kabuki makeup for performers at his tiny London club, Taboo, and died of AIDS a decade ago. Boy George is played by Euan Morton, a young British actor who performed the role in the original London production of "Taboo."

The reason for the role switch is obvious. Boy George, the singer who headed the band called Culture Club from 1982 to 1986 and is still a leading dance music DJ, is now 42 and fatter and suits the role of the 240-pound pansexual Bowery better than he would his own younger self. Morton is the right age for Boy George as a slim youth with a sweet androgynous face enhanced by geisha makeup. Audiences really have no trouble with this odd casting.

O'Donnell flipped for the show when she saw it in London last year. She engaged the American playwright-actor Charles Busch to rewrite the original book by British playwright Mark Davies, eliminating the main character, a fictional entertainer named Billy, to make Boy George the co-protagonist with Leigh Bowery. This has tightened the focus and excitement of the show considerably, allowing for a seamless entwining of the two men's career stories.

Under the brisk direction of Christopher Renshaw, the cast exudes a vitality that can overwhelm an audience and creates well-rounded characterizations that are appealing and compassionate. This is a story of lonely souls who are living outside the mainstream of society and seeking the satisfaction through the adoration of young admirers. There is much to touch the heart of audiences in "Taboo," and this potential is fully realized.

Boy George is simply wonderful and in fine voice as the flamboyant Bowery, and Morton is charmingly engaging as an actor and vocalist as Boy George. Other strong and unusually sympathetic performances are being given by Cary Shields as Marcus, Boy George's "straight" photographer lover, and Raul Esparza as Philip Sallon, a rival transvestite club owner who never quite makes it as a star the magnitude of Boy George.

The best voice in the show is that of Brooke Elliott, an old-fashioned belter, in the role of Big Sue, Bowery's guardian angel, and Sarah Uriarte Berry is effective if less colorful as the other woman in his life, his wife Nicola. There has to be one unattractive personality in every show and this falls to Jeffrey Carlson by way of the role of Marilyn, a jealous, drugged-out singer whom Boy George generously accommodates in his entourage.

The soft rock score composed by Boy George is compellingly rhythmic and pleasantly melodic. The lyrics for his ballads are surprising witty and at times poetic ("Wanting love so desperately/ Oh so desperately/ If you see all the hurt in my eyes/ Will you laugh, will you run, will you carry me?), and much of the bitchy dialog is quite funny. Mark Dendy's frenetic choreography gets a snappy performance from a corps of 15 dancers.

Tim Goodchild's set is simplicity itself, with various scenes suggested by movable set-ups of room furnishings spotlighted by Natasha Katz. Mike Nicholls and Bobby Pearce have created a queenly wardrobe of bizarre costumes, many modeled after Bowery originals. Best of all is a grand dame costume for Bowery, a bosom-bearing, poison green Empire-style gown with a maribou-feathered tutu skirt worn over glittery tights and stiletto boots. It's a hoot, and so's the show.

Footnote: Bowery became the subject of several paintings by leading British portraitist Lucian Freud. One of them can be seen at the National Gallery in London.

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