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Who would have guessed that music savant and Talking Heads lead David Byrne, one of the most influential figures to ride the post-punk, avant-funk wave, secretly aspired to Andrew Lloyd Webber lite? Sadly, that’s the impression left by Joan of Arc: Into the Fire, a misguided alt-rock musical that reduces the crusade, persecution and death of the 15th century French heroine to a simplistic “Martyrdom for Dummies” with a repetitious beat. Frequently recalling Jesus Christ Superstar, though generally falling short of that mark, the show boasts fabulous production values and a vocally talented lead with cool stage presence in Jo Lampert. But divine inspiration is lacking.
The project reunites Byrne with the Public Theater and director Alex Timbers after their 2013 triumph with Here Lies Love, a deliriously entertaining and powerfully moving immersive dance-club bio-musical about the life of Imelda Marcos. That precedent, plus the evident resources poured into this follow-up, makes it all the more disappointing. Nobody can wire stage material with kinetic energy like Timbers, and the ace team of set designer Christopher Barreca, costumer Clint Ramos and lighting whiz Justin Townsend deftly straddles the divide between rock concert and theatrical narrative. It’s the surprising lack of sophistication or emotional depth in the material that deflates expectations.
The show starts somewhat promisingly, with Lampert in body-hugging contemporary leathers — an androgynous, rock-star-thin alternative Olive Oyl flanked by a pack of 10 hunky, multiethnic male followers. Telling her story as a concert-style Passion Play, she slips into the pauvre-chic muslin dress and braids of Joan, the 16-year-old peasant girl standing in the ashes of her village, Domremy, burned by English soldiers in 1428. While questioning why the Hundred Years’ War has raged on for so long, she receives a vision of angels, instructing her to be God’s messenger and lead France to freedom.
Taking solo credit for book, music and lyrics, Byrne trudges in linear fashion through the key steps of Joan’s unswerving quest. She reaches the French army camp and fires up the flagging morale of Captain Baudricourt (Michael James Shaw) and his men, swapping her female clothing for men’s attire in order to pass as one of the soldiers. Armed only with her prayers, her mohawk and a fleur-de-lis banner, she leads the successful march on Orleans, reclaiming towns from the British en route to Reims Cathedral, where she delivers the uncrowned Dauphin (Kyle Selig) for his coronation.
Choreographer Steven Hoggett, whose moves for Black Watch set an expressive new standard for military ballet, does his best to make this series of clashes dynamic. But the battle scenes more often betray a debt to ‘80s music videos, a seemingly unintended reference that surfaces also in some of Byrne’s more banal lyrics. When the Brits strike Joan with an arrow to the breast and sing the exultant lines, “She’s hit! We got her!,” you could swear you’re hearing a B-side from some AM-radio hair-metal band.
There’s a note of feminist outrage in the humiliation of Joan being subjected not once but twice to creepy virginity examinations to determine whether she really is able to talk to God. But even when the French repay her courage by giving her just a fraction of the troops she needs to take back Paris from the occupiers, leading to her capture and imprisonment, the treatment is simply too rudimentary to foster a connection to the central character.
“Have faith. Be strong” is the musical motif that recurs throughout, defining both Joan’s rallying cry and her prayer to herself in moments of doubt. But the grit, commitment and gutsy vocals of Lampert (a touring member of the band tUnE-yArDs) can’t inject emotional nuance into the baldly explanatory, episodic writing.
Nor is there much dramatic tension in her trial and torture, and the coerced confession she subsequently recants, leading to her being burned at the stake as a heretic. The conflicted figure of Bishop Cauchon (Sean Allan Krill), the British loyalist who claims to want to save her soul, lacks complexity, coming off as a poor man’s Pontius Pilate from Superstar. And the head priest (Rodrick Covington), presiding over Joan’s torture after her attempted escape from the prison tower, seems incongruously to have strutted in from playing Jimmy ‘Thunder’ Early in Dreamgirls.
After the last of the English occupiers have been driven out as Joan prophesied, Mare Winningham turns up in the final scene as her mother, lobbying 24 years after her daughter’s death for a retrial to restore her name with the anthemic refrain, “Send Her to Heaven.” While Winningham radiates humanity and maternal love, it’s hard to generate feeling at the end of a musical Wikipedia entry.
Every now and then, the threat of a catchy hook creeps into the score, but Byrne’s tunes for the most part are samey electro-rock filler, lacking in propulsive drive, narrative shape or fitting spiritual heft. The real deal-breaker though is the clunky lyrics, with scarcely a rhyme you don’t hear coming.
Timbers works tirelessly to keep the action moving — even if the occasional pause to scratch beneath the characters’ surfaces wouldn’t have hurt. The downstage playing space is backed by a wide platform of stairs on a turntable, allowing clashes and strategic meetings to take place up and down the risers, where compartments open up for members of the six-piece band. And the steps and walls are splashed with Darrel Maloney’s projections, ranging from symbolic imagery to basic text indicating dates, events and locations. Nobody could call the storytelling inaccessible.
The staging’s most noteworthy component, however, is Ramos’ stunning costumes, from the cobalt blue robes of the French court through the purple and gold of the clergy to the black and red leather flag tunics of the English army, which look like something Alexander McQueen might have whipped up. The designer’s masterstroke is the gradual transformation of Joan from peasant girl to warrior, building on basic chainmail and latex leggings with piece-by-piece additions of armor for every battle. A silver breastplate all but blinds us in the audience with its brilliance, later completed with pauldrons, gauntlets and cape. The splendor of that heroic image, alongside the cruelty of Joan tormented by her persecutors, stripped almost naked but for a few bandage-style rags, paints a more stirring picture than anything in the text or music.
Those of us who have admired Byrne’s eclectic output for 40 years can only hope the musical chameleon puts this monotonous misfire behind him fast and moves on to more stimulating projects, without giving up on theater.
Venue: Public Theatre, New York
Cast: Jo Lampert, Terence Archie, James Brown III, Jonathan Burke, Rodrick Covington, Sean Allan Krill, Mike McGowan, Adam Perry, John Schiappa, Kyle Selig, Michael James Shaw, Mare Winningham
Director: Alex Timbers
Book, music & lyrics: David Byrne
Set designer: Christopher Barreca
Costume designer: Clint Ramos
Lighting designer: Justin Townsend
Sound designer: Cody Spencer
Projection designer: Darrel Maloney
Special effects designer: Jeremy Chernick
Music director: Kris Kukul
Orchestrations & arrangements: David Byrne
Choreographer: Steven Hoggett
Presented by The Public Theater
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