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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
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,
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
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