Keith Haring’s instantly recognizable style — the thick, squiggly black lines carving space into goofy urban hieroglyphs — has been translated woozily to the stage in “Radiant Baby,” a new musical based on the life of the pop artist who found global fame in the 1980s and died of AIDS just as the decade came to a close. Director George C. Wolfe works overtime trying to shape the show into a flashy parade of iconic images from the era, but look between the thick black lines of the swirling stagecraft and there’s nothing much there. Frenetic but vacuous, with a serious sentimental streak and an undistinguished faux-funk score, “Radiant Baby” is an endlessly thudding bass line in search of a musical.
Our guides to the wacky world of Haring are, oddly enough, a trio of ethnically assorted tykes. In the opening number they introduce us to the chaos in the artist’s studio on a day in 1988 that turns out to be a sad turning point. Haring’s assistant Amanda (Kate Jennings Grant) is fielding phone calls from anxious clients and curators — Keith has mysteriously disappeared for almost two days. (The easily foreseen explanation will be revealed much later: He’s just been diagnosed with AIDS.) When he finally shows up, he shoos her off to sing a funky anthem of uplift with the kids, whom he’s teaching to paint: “As long as you believe in you/You never know what you can do/You might be good, you might be great/You’ll never know/Till you create.”
This disconcerting number, which might be a segment from “Sesame Street,” is meant to underscore that Haring was a big kid at heart, a raw talent who shook up the art world by looking at the city around him as a super-sized coloring book. Maybe so, but he was apparently a kid with a big sex life. Indeed, the recurring presence of Keith’s little friends, which inevitably has its cloying aspects (when they read from his diary, for instance), is probably intended to take the sleazy edge off the show’s frequent immersions in the haunts that Haring would come to frequent when this sheltered gay kid from rural Pennsylvania hit the big city.
In the other tone-setting song from the first act, the young Haring, fresh off the bus, and backed by a couple of Village People types, sings a paean to the “gay bars down on Hudson/the discos on Saint Mark’s/the drag queens at the diner/the lovers in the parks.” For Haring, it seems New York was just a big sexual emporium, Boys R Us. He delves happily into the hedonistic world of the Paradise disco (read Paradise Garage), a polysexual, multiethnic merry-go-round that becomes his home away from the studio. “I’m not into dating,” he’ll tell his sometime boyfriend Carlos (Aaron Lohr), apparently an amalgam of several actual boyfriends, who is predictably generic.
But visits from the little ones aren’t really necessary to lend the show an aura of wholesomeness: Even that decadent disco, peopled as it is by well-toned young men gyrating happily in unison to Fatima Robinson’s athletic choreography, looks pretty innocuous. In translating the more outrageous elements of the urban landscape of the time into the language of musical theater, the show’s creators inevitably sanitize them: The drug-riddled East Village of the early ’80s might pass for a province of Disneyland as it is depicted here.
Such would-be exotic diversions are nevertheless among the livelier aspects of the evening, which otherwise resembles the season’s biographical romp through bohemian New York of an earlier era, “Imaginary Friends,” in its tendency to tell us rather than show us, to frantically narrate rather than dramatize the life of its subject.
Key moments in Haring’s experience are all accounted for — the telltale reach for the crayon (magenta), the wallflower years in high school, the “Eureka!” moment when Haring decided to use the urban landscape as his canvas, his subsequent fame as a drive-by graffiti wunderkind, the disillusionment that set in when the art world turned its back on him. But they pass by like living flashcards, revealing little or nothing of his character, even as they are staged to the hilt by Wolfe in ways that begin to seem increasingly desperate. (Did we really need not one but two facsimiles of Madonna — in her faux-virgin period and her sinewy “Vogue” poses — in act two’s “Flavor of the Week”?) The jumbled chronology and frenzied pace come to seem a disguise for an underlying lack of narrative drive and coherence.
Nonetheless, there are certainly some bright, engaging sequences. Julee Cruise, who plays several small roles and reveals a sharp gift for caricature, is a consistent pleasure. In act two, she does a deliciously dry impersonation of Andy Warhol in one of the show’s best numbers, “Hot Tomato Soup,” a vaudevillian duet in which Warhol dispenses advice to his befuddled protege: “Keith, you’re a commodity like orange juice or pork bellies. What’s the first rule of commodity trading? — don’t glut the market.” The sets by Riccardo Hernandez, costumes by Emilio Sosa and projections by Batwin+Robin deftly evoke the era and lend kaleidoscopic shards of color to the proceedings.
But both wit and emotional depth are in short supply. The book by Stuart Ross and the lyrics by Ross, composer Debra Barsha and Ira Gasman are simplistic and often clunky or sentimental. And aside from his childlike enthusiasm, artistic dedication and sexual voracity, Haring’s character remains indistinct; as played with boundless energy by Daniel Reichard, he’s primarily a hip-hopping neurotic in a state of permanent anxiety. The characters surrounding him — Grant’s chronically worried Amanda; gay photographer Kwong (Keong Sim), who chronicles Haring’s career and also succumbs to AIDS; the put-upon Carlos — are given little to do other than react with exasperation to his antics.
But exasperation seems preferable to the all-forgiving benevolence of those kids. In the show’s climax — with Haring ascending, presumably, to celebrity heaven — they sing, “Please Keith, know your art is with us/Making smiles and stuff/Giving us a sense of hope/A sense that we’re enough.” By this point, the audience is not likely to be so sanguine, although they may well be feeling that — as an old disco chestnut has it — enough is enough.