Like a colloquialism from a forgotten civilization, the term "instant gratification" has perhaps lost its meaning in this world of color-coded terror alerts and volatile economies. If the exuberant Radiant Baby is any indication, however, that concept is poised for a comeback. Chronicling the meteoric rise of Keith Haring, the subway muralist turned artistic icon, Radiant Baby recalls an age when "greed was good," economically, artistically, and sexually.
If one man personifies the opportunities and consequences of that zeitgeist, it is Haring: an underground artist whose spectacular commercial success brought scorn from the artistic community. An insatiable participant in the promiscuous New York club scene just before the arrival of AIDS, Haring's life could easily be reduced to a farce. Yet when that life is presented with 23 breathtaking musical numbers, an impressive cast, and a light show that will put the Hayden Planetarium out of business, it is cause for celebration.
That's no small feat for a show dealing with AIDS, betrayal, and self-loathing. Of course, Radiant Baby probably never had anything to worry about anyway under the direction of the legendary George C. Wolfe. Fortunately, with buzz rivaling Hairspray and a major investment from Dreamworks, Radiant Baby looks ready to follow cousin Take Me Out to Broadway. That's the right place for this lavish production, with its dazzling computer-generated projections and minutely detailed sets.
Those technical marvels are spectacular enough to make Haring's work--which flashes across the stage with elaborate precision--the star of the show, but that wouldn't do justice to the stellar cast. Featuring newcomer Daniel Reichard as Haring, Kate Jennings Grant as Haring's assistant Amanda, and Julee Cruise as both Andy Warhol and Haring's mother, the exceptionally strong ensemble makes Radiant Baby far more than a lighting and projection extravaganza.
As Haring, Reichard is both thoughtful and wild, bouncing around the stage one moment, hunching silently over an untied shoe the next. Reichard develops his Haring subtly but thoroughly during the play's two hours, shifting smoothly from the star-struck student who has "got to meet Andy Warhol" to the shrewd self-promoter who demands to know why he hasn't been included in a MoMA retrospective.
Grant, a superb actress with a beautiful voice, manages to make her nagging, frazzled Amanda a sympathetic character; even an act as simple as answering Haring's phone becomes a study in compassion and concern.
Julee Cruise is nothing short of brilliant. Her Andy Warhol is both shy and effortlessly cool--a paradoxical combination no one has been able to pull off since Warhol himself. As Haring's mother, she manages to be convincing even as a 50s housewife wholeheartedly supporting her son's expedition to New York City, the ultimate den of iniquity. Even while playing a minor role as an art critic, Cruise steals every scene she's in.
Some of the other leading performances are not nearly as strong. As Haring's photographer Tseng Kwong Chi, Keong Sim falls flatter than his singing, while the three children who function as a Greek chorus never succeed in being anything beyond cloying. One can only hope they will be replaced before Radiant Baby's seemingly inevitable Broadway run.
The play opens in Haring's Manhattan loft during the summer of 1988. Haring has gone missing, and as Amanda struggles to fend off gallery owners, the media, and merchandisers, the energy builds to a crescendo, bursting into an electric musical number announcing that "This is the world of Keith Haring/ Faster than the speed of light." Flashing back to Haring's banal suburban childhood, Radiant Baby takes the audience back to a time when Haring was just a creative child with slightly aberrant tendencies. Mrs. Haring wryly recalls that upon being asked to depict an object he came into contact with on a daily basis, Keith drew an array of male genitalia, "three thousand at last count," but the art department "just hung the drawing upside down and titled it 'Tulips.'"
Standing dateless against the wall at his prom, Haring decides to flee to New York. It is there, in a city yet to be invaded by Starbucks and the Gap, that Radiant Baby really hits its stride. The decaying New York City of the early 80s is covered in graffiti and ravaged by street gangs, and the visual expression of that emerging subculture immediately appeals to the linearly-oriented Haring. Gazing at the subway cars "tagged" by shadowy graffiti artists, he is inspired to create his own illicit murals on advertising panels across the city. First causing a sensation and then Haring's arrest, his exuberant pictograms of barking dogs, dancing figures, and crawling babies soon covered the city, making Haring a media star. "New York City--where else could I get away with this shit?" Haring laughs.
More importantly, the city's uniquely frenetic nightlife allows Barsha and choreographer Fatima Robinson to display their talents. Their supreme achievement is the show-stopping "Instant Gratification," set on the packed dance floor of the white-hot Paradise nightclub. Haring, having just recently arrived in New York, stands to the side as the frenzied mass dances to the title song, then gradually draws towards the center of the frenzy. There he meets Carlos's (Aaron Lohr), the Paradise's DJ, who eventually becomes his lover. "If it can't be love/ It better be good," admonishes an unseen singer as Carlos returns to Haring's loft; it could be the theme of that age.
Yet if Radiant Baby often rages with raw sexuality, it also has its moments of unapologetic sentimentality. Carlos' musical "Dear John" letter to Haring is surprisingly long and syrupy considering how little time they spend together on stage; the closing scene where Haring, Carlos, and Kwong come to terms with AIDS is painfully socially conscious. These shortcomings, however, are but minor flaws in a show that never lets the audience rest until the lights go down.
"You might be bad, you might be great/ You won't know until you create," Haring reminds the children, urging them to draw with abandon. By the end of Radiant Baby, we should be glad Barsha, Ross, and Wolfe decided to take Haring's advice--because they won't be the only ones who'll know they are great.
Newman Theater, in the Joseph Papp Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, East Village., closes March 2, 2003. Tue - Sat at 8pm; Wed, Sat, Sun at 2pm. Tickets $55, available by calling Telecharge: 212-239-6200