NEW YORK -- Boy George sashays through a darkened London nightclub filled with drag queens, druggies and devotees of debauchery. His Kabuki makeup piled inches thick, he belts out pitch-perfect renditions of "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me" and "Karma Chameleon."
The trick is, under the makeup is young Scottish actor Euan Morton. The real Boy George is there, too, on stage at Broadway's Plymouth Theatre in the new musical "Taboo." But Morton's rendition is so convincing that some audience members wonder if he's the real thing.
"People have debates in the theater when I come on, asking, 'Is that him?"' Morton says one recent night before the show. "You know, Boy George is 40. He's bigger than me. Of course, I'm not Boy George."
The real Boy George - George O'Dowd - plays fashion designer and performance artist Leigh Bowery, at times sharing the stage with Morton as his young self in a bizarre identity swap.
For O'Dowd, watching Morton trace Boy George's path from a fame-hungry, love-starved young man in Act 1 to a fame-loathing, drug-addicted star in Act 2 has become a familiar routine - the two are reprising the roles from the original London production.
"He does it very well," says O'Dowd, who also wrote the score for "Taboo."
"If I was watching somebody playing me as a caricature, I'd have a problem with that. But Euan's just so fantastic."
When he was tapped for the role, the 26-year-old Morton was working at a Tower Records store in London. Munching on eggs and toast at Broadway hangout Angus McIndoe's before a performance, Morton reflected on his rise from a self-described "no one" to become the star of a $10 million Broadway musical.
"I woke up the beginning of this week and thought, 'I don't think I'm ready for this,"' he says. "I honestly never wanted to grow up and be famous. I wanted to be rich. I wanted to buy my mum a house."
He's one step closer to that dream, too: Since coming to Broadway, Morton has been sending money home to his mother so she could leave her job at the post office.
"He's as sweet as he seems," says Rosie O'Donnell, who co-produced the show with Adam Kenwright. "I think he's going to be a big star and have a huge recording career. I mean, that voice ..."
Though his crooning has earned him praise - The Associated Press called Morton "a revelation ... a small guy with a distinct, haunting voice, (who) quietly anchors the production" - Morton was not trained as a singer. He studied acting, leaving the small town of Bo'ness, Scotland, at 16 to attend drama school in London.
Behind the makeup, says O'Donnell, Morton and O'Dowd are "totally different breeds."
"They're both exotic and wonderful in their own way," she says. "But you know, one (O'Dowd) is a peacock, flustered and angry, and the other one (Morton) is a peaceful dove. Totally different kind of bird."
Morton was too young to catch the real Boy George in his heyday. He remembers first seeing him in a rerun of "Top of the Pops."
"He had this massive white hat and dreadlocks and I remember saying to my mum the question that everyone else asks, 'Is that a boy or a girl?' My mum said, 'It's a boy and I love him. I think he's beautiful. I think he's very brave and beautiful."'
Still, years later, it was hard for the Mortons to watch their son Euan take on the role. "They come from a little town in Scotland where men don't kiss men and where men don't wear dresses and high-heeled shoes and makeup," he says.
But Morton identifies with Boy George's search for love and acceptance in a world of freaks and misfits.
"I think ultimately the reason that 'Taboo' appeals to people is because the message is universal - that every one of us desires recognition to some degree. The person working in the bank wants to be loved. None of us wants to die and be forgotten. That's the major message of this piece and that is what will keep it alive. It moves people."
Before "Taboo," most of Morton's roles were in "deep, meaningful theater." For him, the toughest part of playing Boy George is falling in love on stage every night.
"Doesn't matter if it's a man or a woman," he says. "To go to work at night and fall in love with someone and then split up with them every night. ... I find that very difficult."
As he drags on a Marlboro Light, his hair dyed platinum to play the post-braids Boy George, Morton laughs at his own dedication to the role: "Look at me, I'm being all deep and meaningful about a flaming musical."
When Morton first learned that O'Donnell wanted to bring "Taboo" to Broadway, he had no idea she had a successful American talk show and a reputation as the "Queen of Nice." He just knew her from the movie "The Flintstones."
"I was really excited, not because it was Rosie O'Donnell - I was excited because she told me I could come. I spent eight months going, 'Oh my God, I'm going to America."'
Once here, he found himself swept up in a media maelstrom.
Even before its Nov. 13 debut, "Taboo" became tabloid fodder as O'Donnell muddled through a very public lawsuit with publisher Gruner + Jahr USA over her now-defunct magazine. Rumors of backstage tantrums and power struggles filled the New York tabloids, with The New York Post labeling the musical "a turkey."
"You hear these things in the press about how Rosie's all controlling. She's the Willie Wonka and this is the chocolate factory and she's in charge and we're all her oompah loompahs, and it's so untrue. I mean, she's no more controlling than any producer producing any $10 million show on Broadway would be.
"I think ultimately you can call her as many names as you like on the front page of the paper, but if you were to swap places with her not one of us would have survived that half as well as she has."
Morton himself has been struggling under the negative press.
"I'm so surprised to see certain parts of the media try to destroy live theater before it's even begun," he says. "Last night, it just suddenly struck me that this is a place where people will say if they don't like you. That's the bit of it that I'm not sure I'm ready for. That's the bit that could make me go a bit mad."
While reviews for "Taboo" have been mostly negative, Morton has received accolades for his sensitive performance and gently insistent voice. His mother "harangues" him to record an album but Morton's first love remains acting.
"I would love to do film, I would love to do TV, I would love to do it all," he says. "Play a heterosexual for a start, who wears no makeup, who doesn't sing, who doesn't have long hair."
But Morton doesn't get ahead of himself.
"This could collapse and I could be home by January, and this could all just be a memory," he says. "It would be a bloody good one, but it would all just be a memory. You can never take it too seriously."
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