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A pop tuneful ‘Taboo’

Boy George brings real heart to story of artist Leigh Bowery
/ Source: The Associated Press

Not many stars can get away with making their initial entrance on stage through a toilet stall but Boy George does just that.

Mind you, he’s dressed in a black tutu, a collection of eyeglasses covering his shaved head and enough makeup to sink Max Factor and Revlon combined.

The occasion, of course, is “Taboo,” the London musical with a score by Boy George (real name: George O’Dowd) and produced on Broadway by recent lawsuit queen Rosie O’Donnell. This messy yet musically flavorsome show has arrived at the Plymouth Theatre, trailing clouds of controversy. Hissy fits by actors. A new choreographer. Rumors of another director waiting in the wings. If only a lot of that drama were up on the stage.

What’s there, though, is a fine score, a (mostly) terrific cast and, strangely enough, some honest-to-goodness heart, real emotion that occasionally peeks through the glitter and deliberate outrageousness. They survive Charles Busch’s bifurcated, often muddy book and Christopher Renshaw’s slack direction, which lurches the story from scene to scene.

The plot? This is a Boy George musical in which the real Boy George doesn’t play Boy George. The pop icon is on tap to portray Leigh Bowery, a flamboyant designer and performance artist who burned brightly in the 1980s and then died from complications of AIDS in 1994 at the age of 33. These days if anyone remembers Bowery at all, it’s through the paintings of him by Lucian Freud.

“Taboo” is a celebration of a small slice of recent music history, a look at the 1980s London club scene, an environment that brought Boy George fame, fortune and notoriety.

Flawed structure
One of the problems with the musical is that we have two stories competing for our attention. There’s the Boy George saga and the Leigh Bowery tale, and they rarely intersect.

It also may be time to retire the flashback framework, at least for the rest of the season. “Taboo” is the third new musical this fall to begin by looking backward, a plot device used by both “The Boy From Oz” and “Wicked.”

Here, two of Boy George’s cohorts, Philip Sallon and Big Sue, are in the ruins of Bowery’s old club, Taboo, and reminisce about the bad old days. Sallon serves as the narrator, sort of an ’80s version of the master of ceremonies in “Cabaret,” and introduces us to the character Boy George, who, in his first scene, is wearing a white gown and a large plume headdress.

O’Donnell has had the good sense to bring over Euan Morton from the London “Taboo” to play Boy George. He is a revelation. Morton, a small guy with a distinct, haunting voice, quietly anchors the production, grounding it in a reality that helps paper over some of the book’s rougher spots.

For starters, “Stranger in This World,” Morton’s opening number, clearly defines Boy George’s outsider status as a young gay man and gets the audience immediately on his side.

Theatrical score
And the real Boy George’s score is surprisingly theatrical. It uses only a sprinkling of his old hits such as “Karma Chameleon.” Instead, the production opts for new music and lyrics that indicate the star could have a future in musical theater as a composer.

If Boy George is not really an actor (the original Bowery in London was a fierce, quite scary Matt Lucas), he does project an honesty that gets him through Bowery’s big dramatic scenes, including the obligatory deathbed moment.

The large Liz McCartney and the petite Sarah Uriarte Berry portray the two women competing for Bowery’s attention. Both have booming voices, particularly McCartney, who stops the show with a lament over her wasted life, “Talk Amongst Yourselves.”

Jeffrey Carlson as Marilyn, a narcissistic, talent-free transvestite, is a hoot. Imagine a leggy, aggressive Marilyn Monroe - looking like she just stepped out of “Some Like It Hot” - and you’ll get some idea of what Carlson expertly accomplishes.

Cary Shields is saddled with playing a composite character, an amalgam of all of Boy George’s lovers. As a result, he is the most unreal character on stage, a role served up in soap-opera cliches that Shields manfully sidesteps.

Only Raul Esparza as the narrator, Philip Sallon, missteps, giving what could be the season’s most extravagantly affected performance. Esparza doesn’t just linger over words; he massages them into incomprehensibility.

In London, “Taboo” played The Venue, a small, low-slung auditorium just north of the raffish Leicester Square. There was just enough grunge in the place to give the meandering story a boost of authenticity. On Broadway, at the much posher Plymouth, the musical looks a little out of place. It has to depend on its hardworking cast and tough-minded score to put over what those brief, bizarre moments in the ’80s were really like.