'Lazarus': Theater Review

LAZARUS  - Amy Lennox Michael C Hall Sophia Anne Caruso - Production Still - H - 2016
Johan Persson
Ground control to major weirdness.

David Bowie’s alt-musical collaboration with Ivo van Hove and Enda Walsh, which premiered off-Broadway late last year, moves into a bigger space for its London transfer.

Almost a year after its off-Broadway premiere at New York Theater Workshop, David Bowie's experimental stage musical has just opened in the city of his birth, a homecoming farewell performance that the late art-rock legend never got to make himself.

Staged in a purpose-built temporary space in the rapidly redeveloping area around King's Cross station, Lazarus is playing to larger crowds in London, with a nightly capacity of 900 compared to around 200 in New York. Led by Michael C. Hall, the core cast has made the transfer across the Atlantic, though most secondary roles are now filled by Brits, the live band lineup has been expanded, and Alan Cumming's fleeting video cameo dropped.

He may have lived outside Britain for the last 40 years of his life, chiefly in Switzerland and America, but Bowie remains a beloved national treasure in his homeland. Since his shocking death in January, his name has rarely been out of the domestic news, with his legacy celebrated in musical tributes, books, art exhibitions and street murals. The goodwill toward him in London is palpable, which is handy for Lazarus, because this is a show which demands the indulgence of fans rather than the rigor of critics. While ticket sales are already brisk for its 13-week run, reviews are likely to be as divided here as they were in New York.

Conceived in partnership with Irish playwright Enda Walsh and Belgian director Ivo van Hove, Lazarus is a sequel of sorts to Nicolas Roeg's cerebral 1976 sci-fi drama The Man Who Fell to Earth, which starred Bowie as extra-terrestrial exile Thomas Jerome Newton. Though elliptical and opaque, Roeg's film did at least follow a clear narrative arc. Newton's alien landed on Earth with a long-term plan to amass great wealth as a business tycoon, then build a rocket and return to save his dying planet. But he was defeated by political interference and his own weakness for alcohol.

Lazarus explains this backstory with a clunky chunk of exposition, but in truth any connection between the two dramas is tenuous. The story, by Walsh and Bowie, is more surreal stand-alone fable than coherent coda. Years after the events of the movie, Newton (Hall) is now an alcoholic recluse drinking away his gin-soaked days in his stylishly minimal East Village loft apartment. While pining for his blue-haired lost love Mary Lou, he half-hallucinates a cast of angels and demons, including the malevolent Valentine (Michael Esper, charismatic and scene-stealing) and the unnamed Girl (Sophia Anne Caruso, overly kooky). An American Psycho and a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, both with murky designs on Newton.

Meanwhile, Newton's emotionally fragile assistant Elly (Amy Lennox, stepping in for Cristin Milioti, who originated the role in New York) splits from her boorish husband and makes a play for her boss, donning an electric-blue wig in an apparent bid to replace Mary Lou. This creates some striking visual motifs, including a chorus of blue-haired doppelgangers, but little dramatic tension. As various characters scream, cry, die and apparently come back to life, it becomes increasingly hard to engage emotionally since nothing real seems to be at stake. By the end of this hallucinatory pageant, I half expected Newton to emerge from the shower and reveal it had all been a dream, Bobby Ewing style.

Handsome and chiseled, Hall gives a radiant, poised, athletic performance as Newton, though he lacks the other-worldly aura that a flame-haired, translucent-skinned Bowie brought to the role onscreen. Hall’s boozy fallen star could just as easily be an updated version of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, or Wilde’s Dorian Gray, or even a parallel-universe version of Bowie himself, who spent much of the mid-1970s in a drink-sodden, druggy haze in Los Angeles and New York. The singer certainly considered this alien asylum seeker to be his most autobiographical role. After all, Walter Tevis partly wrote the 1963 novel on which the film is based as an allegory for his own battles with alcoholism.

For Bowiephiles, Lazarus resonates with allusions to the man himself, intentional or otherwise. Most literally, Bowie's face flashes across the video screen at several points, and a pile of his albums sits prominently on the stage. More subtly, Hall appears to co-opt some of the rocker’s more famous poses into his performance, including the sleeve image from Heroes and Bowie's stooped, twisted approximation of Joseph Merrick in The Elephant Man, his sole Broadway acting role in 1980.

While Bowie was appearing on Broadway, Mark David Chapman shot John Lennon just a few blocks away. The killer had a ticket to see The Elephant Man the next night, and Bowie later claimed he was "second on his list." It may be a fanciful leap, but there are faint echoes of Chapman in Valentine, the smiling assassin in Lazarus, who charms his way into Newton's apartment with murderous intent. If Walsh and Bowie had worked more of these teasing real-life parallels into the text, they might have created a more emotionally engaging velvet goldmine of self-referential clues rather than this uneven, eccentric, spaced-out oddity.

Lazarus does have some winning cards up its sleeve. Van Hove and his regular designer Jan Versweyveld make imaginative use of video projection, using out-of-sync footage of the action occurring onstage to invoke Newton's fractured mental state, assailed by fragmentary echoes of past and future events as he was in the film. They also conjure up some eye-catching visual stunts, flooding the stage with sinister black balloons at one point.

But the show's key selling point, of course, is Bowie's catalog of classic songs. Backed by a nine-piece band, who remain mostly visible behind transparent screens at the rear of the stage, the cast perform 17 numbers old and new including "Changes," "Life on Mars?," "All the Young Dudes," "Absolute Beginners" and "Valentine's Day." A brooding rearrangement of "The Man Who Sold the World" drags a little, while "Heroes" lacks punch in its power-ballad form. But otherwise this music stands up well even without its author's direct involvement. The cast largely resist doing Bowie impressions, though some stylistic similarities are unavoidable.

The clumsy integration of music and drama, however, is more problematic. Songs emerge from the action almost arbitrarily, with scant thematic relevance. "It's No Game (Part 1)" is accompanied by a terrific set-piece vignette featuring a dancing geisha girl who bursts from Newton's giant TV screen, but it adds nothing to the story. And while Hall's solo rendition of "Where Are We Now?" is achingly lovely, it comes backed by dreamy video footage of Berlin, foregrounding Bowie's memories over Newton's. Like most of Lazarus, it pleases the senses but makes little sense.

Lazarus is a god-awful strange affair, perhaps because it was assembled in haste by a man who knew he was dying. But, in fairness, it does at least feel like a fitting testament to the real Bowie, who peppered his career with pretentious missteps and failed avant-garde experiments, rather than the infallible art-rock genius he has become over the past 11 months of posthumous canonization. A more conventional jukebox musical, referencing Bowie's own life in a more naturalistic manner, would probably fill larger theaters and earn warmer reviews. It will happen. In the meantime, thousands of longtime fans like me will indulge him one last time in this bittersweet hometown swan song.

Venue: King's Cross Theatre, London
Cast: Michael C. Hall, Amy Lennox, Michael Esper, Sophia Anne Caruso, Gabrielle Brooks, Richard Hansell, Tom Parsons
Director: Ivo van Hove
Playwrights: David Bowie, Enda Walsh
Music & lyrics: David Bowie
Set & lighting designer: Jan Versweyveld
Costume designer: An D’Huys
Sound designer: Tony Gayle
Video designer: Tal Yarden
Choreography: Annie-B Parson
Music director: Henry Hey
Presented by Robert Fox and Jones/Tintoretto Entertainment