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Ever since David Bowie first gained attention in 1969 with “Space Oddity,” and then re-emerged three years later to captain the British glam-rock wave of the early 1970s, his music has combined complex abstract narrative with inherently theatrical flamboyance. His famous “Ziggy Stardust” concerts in 1972 were revolutionary in their incorporation of theater and multimedia elements into a rock show. Despite various rumors and aborted attempts over the decades, however, a full-fledged detour into musical theater hasn’t really happened until now. So Lazarus, in which Bowie revisits the character he played in the 1976 cult movie, The Man Who Fell to Earth, arrives with massive anticipation.
Does the result live up to expectations? That will depend on your devotion to the Thin White Duke — or whether you can score a ticket, given that the extended run is already pretty much sold out through its Jan. 20 closing date. The show is an alienation alt-musical that channels the trippy dream state of an alcoholic extraterrestrial insomniac. So the two intermission-less hours of Lazarus are predictably strange, often impenetrable and a tad pretentious, but always fascinating, even when distancing.
Is it a play with music or a musical? Either way it’s jammed full of Bowie tracks — the best of them from the ‘70s — plus a couple of new songs, all expertly performed by an ace cast led by Michael C. Hall. And it includes stunning video elements that overlap and merge with the physical action in mesmerizing ways. If the production occasionally veers toward camp — one scene recalls the strobe number in which Jennifer Beals‘ welder/exotic dancer got a little too artsy for a Pittsburgh titty bar in Flashdance — that ends up being part of the spell.
The project was initiated by Bowie, who has long nurtured the idea of a return to the character he played onscreen in the Nicolas Roeg film based on American writer Walter Tevis‘ 1963 sci-fi novel. Given that Bowie wrote music for the movie that was shelved in favor of a score by John Phillips and Stomu Yamashta, Lazarus can be considered the completion of that earlier work.
Bowie has chosen interesting collaborators in Irish playwright Enda Walsh, who spun a distinctive musical out of Glen Hansard’s songs in Once, and Belgian avant-garde theater maker Ivo van Hove, whose starkly stripped-down textual probes have memorably included an Angels in America that made haunting use of Bowie songs. Also on the team are the director’s longtime set and lighting design partner Jan Versweyveld; frequent video accomplice Tal Yarden; choreographer Annie-B. Parson, contributing stylized dance elements that incorporate jolts of violence and fight movement; and music director Henry Hey, who first worked with Bowie on 2013’s The Next Day. (That album yields a handful of the more recent songs used here.)
The show’s unconventional nature also makes the choice of venue a smart one. New York Theatre Workshop is a modestly sized space hospitable to this type of experimentation, and its East Village location has a direct connection in the piece.
The extremely loose narrative jumps off from Tevis’ book and Roeg’s film in expanded directions. To the extent that the hallucinatory series of scenes can be boiled down (or that I understood them), the story centers on Thomas Jerome Newton (Hall), a humanoid alien who came to Earth from his drought-stricken planet many years earlier. After amassing a fortune in business while attempting to build a rocket ship to take him home, he was experimented on by the government and now lives in depressed isolation on a diet of gin, Twinkies and jarring bursts of blaring television, unable to leave or to die.
Michael C. Hall in ‘Lazarus’
He’s tormented by visions from his past and his imagination, which fuse in his memories of the blue-haired woman he loved, Mary Lou. As his assistant, Elly (Cristin Milioti), gets sucked deeper into Newton’s world, she separates from her husband (Bobby Moreno) and remakes herself as Mary Lou, forgetting her own identity for a time.
There’s also an ethereal Girl (Sophia Anne Caruso), sent on a mission that she initially struggles to comprehend but eventually deduces is to help Newton return to his planet. (She builds a rocket onstage out of masking tape in one of the show’s simplest but most evocative images.) But it emerges instead that it’s Newton’s task to help free the Girl from her limbo state, a revelation involving dark deeds related by Alan Cumming in a video insert. Finally, there are black-clad figures, led by the enigmatic Valentine (Michael Esper), who appear to be some kind of agents of death. Audiences will make more or less sense of the show depending on their willingness to invest in its unrelentingly opaque and choppy storytelling.
In visual and sonic terms, this is a rich kinetic experience, unfolding in a large, sterile Manhattan apartment, designed by Versweyveld in sickly yellow, with a central video wall and huge windows looking onto the band — an uber-cool ensemble of six led by Hey on synth. Projections spill from the screen into the space surrounding the actors, often echoing the main action with a temporal disconnect, and images of nature and cityscapes from Berlin to New York are frequently beamed behind the band.
For longtime Bowie fans, the show’s sampling of his back catalog will be reward enough, with songs used both literally and atmospherically. Striking interludes are woven around “Changes,” “Life on Mars?,” “Absolute Beginners,” “All the Young Dudes,” “Always Crashing in the Same Car” and “It’s No Game (Part 1),” the latter involving a geisha emerging from the screen to interact with Newton. Along with ambient music, some songs provide quiet underscoring before being interpolated into the action, like “Sound and Vision.” Many of the new arrangements are gorgeous, notably the final number, “Heroes,” performed by Hall and Caruso as a duet of healing deliverance. The fact that they’re bodysurfing in a pool of spilt milk as they sing is typical of the show’s spacey oddity.
Whatever you make of its arcane sensibility, one thing that can’t be faulted is the cast’s commitment to the creative team’s wavelength, providing cohesion even when coherence is lacking. Starting with the vintage Bowie LPs stacked by a turntable on the side of the stage, Lazarus is unabashedly self-referential, so it’s no surprise that many of the cast to varying degrees “do” Bowie in their vocals, particularly Nicholas Christopher, the fabulously commanding Esper and Hall. Caruso is bewitching, combining doll-like vulnerability with strength and determination; her “Life on Mars?” encapsulates the show’s lingering melancholy. And Milioti holds nothing back, spiraling into the kind of intense, expressionistic performance mode that is a van Hove trademark.
The show is very much an ensemble piece, but Hall is its hypnotic linchpin. Looking ravaged and heartbroken, his strong face and muscular body either wracked with sorrow or frozen in brooding detachment, he’s an ideal Bowie alter ego. And with Newton’s languid vowels and brittle enunciation, he’s in spectacular voice. After this and his turn in the recent Hedwig and the Angry Inch revival — in which he vanished into the role rather than winking from behind it like his predecessor, Neil Patrick Harris — Hall really needs to be on the radars of enterprising musical producers.
Whether or not the outre folly of Lazarus pays off is wide open to debate, but this may well be the nearest thing to a Bowie musical that any of us could have hoped for. At the very least, it’s unlike anything else out there and it’s certainly not banal.
Venue: New York Theatre Workshop, New York
Cast: Michael C. Hall, Cristin Milioti, Michael Esper, Sophia Anne Caruso, Nicholas Christopher, Lynn Craig, Bobby Moreno, Krista Pioppi, Charlie Pollock, Brynn Williams
Director: Ivo van Hove
Playwrights: David Bowie, Enda Walsh
Music and lyrics: David Bowie
Set and lighting design: Jan Versweyveld
Costume design: An D’Huys
Sound design: Brian Ronan
Choreography: Annie-B. Parson
Video design: Tal Yarden
Music director: Henry Hey
Presented by New York Theatre Workshop, by special arrangement with Robert Fox, Risky Folio
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