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LETTERS TO EDITOR
|A CurtainUp Review
Debra Barsha's pulsating rock-punk-disco score with its occasional pause for a pop ballad suits the art and the disco club scene of the period. It's especially effective in a show-stopping hedonistic inferno in which a manic male and female diva (Angela Robinson and Billy Porter) sing about "Paradise/ Instant Gratification" à la clubs like the Paradise garage. Fatima Robinson's splashy choreography, which includes a drop dead break dance number, propels the musical movements, true to the mood and pace-setting opening number, "Faster Than the Speed of Light."
On the crafts end, the ubuiquitous Ricardo Hernández has outdone himself with a box-within-a-box set that suggests a blank canvas and explodes with fluidly moving set pieces. + Batwing + Robin Productions' stunning projections transform this canvas into facsimile installations of Haring's work -- in one instance a giant black and white painting is colored in right before our eyes. Add the expert lighting by Howard Binkley and Emilio Sosa's Haring-themed costumes and it adds up to eye-popping, never a dull moment entertainment.
What about the show's book? Ah, there's the rub.
If the inevitable lines in the Public Theater's limited bathroom facilities can be taken as an exit poll of sorts, the talk of the waiting viewers was all about the staging (clearly a yes-yes-yes vote). Not a word about the subject of the whole enterprise, Keith Haring -- the artist whose instantly recognizeable images graced subway as well as gallery walls, tee shirts, watches and buttons.
It's not that the ambitions that ignited Haring's creative fires aren't interesting -- his cartoon imagery was as rooted in such enduring French modernists as Fernand Leger and Jean Dubuffet as Walt Disney's cartoon studio. The granddaddy of the pop art movement and the artist-as-art, Andy Warhol, was the role model for his embrace of commercial endeavors and celebrity. Nor does his frantic race to leave a large legacy before his death of complications from AIDS at thirty-one lack the stuff of tragedy.
The problem is that while Wolfe has imaginatively tapped into Haring's story and art to create a musical that looks like the new-new thing we've all been waiting for, Stuart Ross has not translated John Gruen's biography of Haring or the artist's own journal writings with as surefire and original a touch.
Aa workmanlike flashback construct takes us from Haring's discovery that he has AIDS (in 1988) to his journey from Kutztown, PA to graffiti-into-world-class- artist -celebrity and its attendant pressures. But the a little bit of everything approach soars only in the Paradise club and the Andy Warhol "Tomato Soup" scenes and during the final frenetic burst of creativity with which Haring deals with his impending death.
Ross's lyrics (with co-credits going to Debra Barsha and Ira Gassman) also fail to rise above okay. Thus, while using three kids as a narrating chorus, is an apt touch given Haring's consistent involvement with children, the three young actors ' commentary is too often pedestrian Most damaging is the depiction of the main character who. despite Reichart's full-throttle performance, lacks the complicated edges of the real Haring. The fine performers playing the key subsidiary characters -- Kate Jennings Grant as Haring's loyal but frustrated office manager, Keong Sim as his also AIDS stricken photographer and Aaron Lohr as his hunky lover -- are also hamstrung by being composites of all of the artist's colleagues, friends and lovers.
Haring's Mr. Rogers niceness and the pint-sized chorus, notwithstanding, this is not really a family show. Even though nine and ten year-olds will relate to Harings images, this, unlike Hairspray and The Lion King, is a show calling for a "parental discretion advised " -- particularly, for parents not eager to have the "F" word publicly sanctioned as the Public Theater ushers point people to the entrance for the previewing Suzann-Lori Parks play with its in-your-face title. As long as I'm including caveats, the music is loud. I'd advise seats no closer to the pit than row H.
For more about and by Keith Haring, check out the official Keith Haring web site.
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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