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Flash Review 2, 3-14: Haring for Babies
'Radiant' won't let Keith Grow Up

By Susan Yung
Copyright 2003 Susan Yung

NEW YORK -- If your life were the subject of a musical, how would the scene and song list read -- the bullet points of your life, so to speak? Who among all of your friends, relatives and co-workers would you choose as co-stars, and could they be boiled down to digestible stereotypes? Okay, now cut out all the boring and messy stuff and run it through the filter so that it's clean enough for young kids to watch, even if your meteoric career involved vandalism and your life ended at a tragically young age because of AIDS. It's not as easy as it sounds, and "Radiant Baby," the Public Theater's new production about the life of artist Keith Haring directed by George C. Wolfe, proves this.

Daniel Reichard, who plays Haring, has the energy but not the voice to carry off the lead role. He is joined by Haring studio manager Amanda (Kate Jennings Grant), an ego booster for arts administrators everywhere; the photographer who chronicled much of his work, Tseng Kwong Chi (Keong Sim); and one of his lovers, Carlos (Aaron Lohr). Three kids (Anny Jules, Gabriel Enrique Alvarez, and Remy Zaken) act as a sort of Greek chorus/narrator; all three have pleasing voices and impressive acting skills and quietly upstaged the leads with their quiet presence.

Haring, noted for his cartoon-line murals of jigsaw puzzle complexity, seemed himself like a comic book character, with his goggly glasses and wiry frame. "Radiant Baby" erases the salient details of Haring's being so successfully that he comes across as an art therapist for at-risk youth well on his way to sainthood. "Radiant Baby" does capture the energy and the compulsion to make art that possessed Haring like a demon. During the early '80s, his chalk drawings were everywhere, especially in the subway on blank ad placards. As his notoriety grew, so did his reach, and soon his artwork found its way into galleries, print media, and onto every kind of product imaginable. His artwork was, in a way, emblematic of the art world boom -- frenzied, unstoppable, forever young.

Despite all of his successes, Haring was spurned by the art establishment, a fact that frustrated him immensely. He grew up in Pennsylvania where he studied art, eventually winding up at New York's School of Visual Arts. And though he hadn't emerged from the street side of graffiti, and his work was lumped in with the subway graffitists, his art never truly fit in with theirs either. "Radiant Baby" dwells on this, and makes an embarrassing, pedantic effort to elicit sympathy for Haring by enlisting the cast to literally shout out his major accomplishments aided by slide projections. Instead, we were left to wonder if he simply didn't see the forest for the trees.

Fatima Robinson's sharp choreography is just right for the show, managing to update hip-hop without making it stick out. She knows how to use movement to make a big impact in a short amount of time. (Robinson has choreographed commercials for The Gap and music videos for Michael Jackson and a number of other big names). And the show-offy hip-hop style works well in small doses like this, where fantastic moves didn't blur together in a repetitive stream, as can sometimes happen. Robinson also hits the right tone in a scene revolving around Andy Warhol, where the cast vogues and struts in platinum wigs.

Many scenes take place in Haring's studio, a clever arrangement of painting racks and office detritus designed by Riccardo Hernandez. Projections by Batwin + Robin find their way not only onto the backdrop, but crawl up the proscenium as well, and are often effective in translating Haring's frenetic compositions. Debra Barsha composed the music -- punchy, poppy tunes with lyrics by Barsha, Ira Gasman, and Stuart Ross. Knock-out numbers include disco-diva led "Instant Gratification," and "Hot Tomato Soup," with the underused Julee Cruse as Warhol (she also plays Haring's mother). This number best catches the absurd, campy fun of that era. The band (five musicians) sat in a pit, out of sight from my perspective. While the live music is certainly integral, especially in the wake of the Broadway strike, it's always nice to have some sort of visual connection as reassurance in this time of heavy miking.

In the end, Haring comes off as an extremely sympathetic figure, which is probably the only way it could be so relatively soon after his passing in 1990 at the age of 31. In a sense, he truly was a bit of a magician, able to turn empty billboards into masterpieces in moments. But the wilder aspects of his life that the show skims over would surely have made for more interesting theater, and a more balanced depiction of this prodigy. I recall visiting a show of Haring's while he was alive. He had painted murals on the walls, the space was lit with black lights, and people were roller skating around the gallery. Just that memory alone evokes more thrills and wonder than all of "Radiant Baby."


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