As a portrait of Keith Haring, the once-ubiquitous young pop artist whose energetic work has survived his death from AIDS in 1990, the new musical
Radiant Baby is most admirable for what it doesn’t say. It doesn’t stop to explain the energy of the late ‘70s, when a kid could move from small-town Pennsylvania and dive into an out gay life without apology or looking back -- it just shows it. Same goes for the multiracial street energy that spawned a fertile new hiphop culture and an icon named Madonna. Ditto the manic determination with which an artist with AIDS might try to cram a lifetime of work into a matter of months.
What’s a drag is that the zap-pow energy of Haring’s life and work gets crammed into the corset of a conventional biographical musical. Almost all the scenes that string together a linear narrative run aground on cliched and over-earnest ruminations on the origin of creativity, success vs. selling out, the pressure stardom puts on a relationship, etc. And a few of these numbers borrow heavily, without acknowledgement, from
Dreamgirls, whose sturdy originality as a pop-rock musical becomes clearer with every passing year.
Luckily, that’s only about half the show, and the other half contains moments as ecstatic as anything you can experience in a musical these days. One of the real stars of the show is music-video choreographer Fatima Robinson, who captures the dazzling kineticism of the early ‘80s subway-graffiti/break-dancing scene and offers a witty homage to Madonna’s "Borderline" video. And director George C. Wolfe stages an extended sequence set at legendary Manhattan disco the Paradise Garage that thrillingly reflects both the utopian tribalism and the sweaty sexuality of dance-club culture. The cast is fresh and smart, and Daniel Reichard makes a fetchingly gawky Keith Haring (especially with his unselfconsciously spastic dancing). But Billy Porter really steals the show channeling Sylvester in a number called "Instant Gratification" that sums up an era and creates a
nouveau-classic disco anthem all at the same time.
Written for the Advocate, not published, March 2003