Brynn Williams, Cristin Milioti, Michael C. Hall, Krista Pioppi, and Sophia Anne Caruso in Lazarus
If nothing else Lazarus, the new musical with David Bowie songs that opened last night at New York Theatre Workshop, looks and sounds terrific. The show, directed by Ivo von Hove who’s currently got a Broadway hit with his emotionally supercharged revival of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, integrates live performance and electronic imagery to frequently stunning effect. What’s more, the company, led by Michael C. Hall, belts out Bowie’s music with power and emotional grit.
But, while the visuals and musicality of the show are to be savored, the piece itself confounds.
Based on Walter Tevis’s novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, which in turn inspired the 1976 movie of the same name that starred Bowie, the show, with a book by Enda Walsh (Once) and Bowie, still centers on the hero of the book and film, Thomas Jerome Newton (played by Hall), an alien trapped on earth.
Lazarus, though, doesn’t aim to replicate the plot of Earth, but rather, seems to be a sequel of sorts, or perhaps hallucinogenic riff on the book's and movie’s themes and characters is more apt. As audiences meet him, Newton’s living a recluse’s existence in a spartanly furnished Manhattan penthouse where he subsists on gin, Lucky Charms cereal, and Twinkies.
For some reason, he’s hired a personal assistant, Elly (Cristin Milioti), and her fascination with her boss is tanking her relationship with her husband (Bobby Moreno). It doesn’t help that Elly also happens to be transforming into Mary-Lou, the earth woman whom Newton married and who eventually abandoned him.
Beyond Elly, Newton’s world includes a business colleague, Michael (Charlie Pollock), and an otherworldly child, known just as “Girl” (Sophia Anne Caruso). This character initially appears to be a figment of Newton’s imagination, but as the show progresses, the notion that she had, at some point, a basis in her own reality arises. Regardless, Girl serves an important function for Michael. She helps him process his grief over losing Mary-Lou and assists him in fashioning a mechanism of sorts to return to his planet.
A third visitor to Netwon’s sterile, huge-windowed, beige-walled home (Jan Versweyveld’s scenic design provides an amazing canvas for his own lighting and for Tal Yarden’s astonishing video work) is a black-suited Mephistophelean gentleman by the name of Valentine (Michael Esper). This character appears to be some sort of representative of “The Man,” desperate to further isolate Newton and undermine his already shaky psychological condition.
These strands of plot and motivation whirl together in what could be described as an electro-kaleidoscope of text, song, and imagery. At some points, particularly when a video doppelganger for Newton trashes the apartment while Hall is also onstage and when a live video feed projects Hall laid out on outline of a spaceship that has been created with masking-tape on the stage floor, Lazarus resembles an early 1980s music video transferred to the stage. All of the pieces loosely fit together, but their collective meaning remains obscure. (For an example, revisit the 1983 video for Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.”)
The cumulative effect of this the show becomes one of both frustration and rapt fascination. It’s pretty difficult to not get sucked in by the remarkably intense and thoughtful performances that Hall, Milioti and Esper deliver. Milioti’s work on “Changes,” one of the Bowie classics in the musical, electrifies with its rawness. Throughout Hall turns in a performance that’s a mixture of tortured pain and emotional detachment. When he sings, sounding very much like Bowie himself, Hall fills the songs with emotion, from the new song “Lazarus” that opens the musical to the classic “Where Are We Now?” As for Esper, his performance is the epitome of unnerving menace. It’s actually often a relief to have Caruso’s delicate and wonderfully sweet Girl on stage simply to offset the creepiness that Esper provides.
The problem is that even as Lazarus draws theatergoers in (other familiar songs like “The Man Who Sold the World” from 1971, “Absolute Beginners” from 1986, and the more recent “Dirty Boys” don’t hurt in this process), it delivers confusing roadblocks. A sidebar plot about a couple’s pending nuptials, as well as Valentine’s ironic and violent loathing of their happiness, left me scratching my head.
Ultimately, the key to the meaning and intent of Lazarus may lie in the final request that Girl makes of Newton and his response to it. Suddenly a hopelessness and helplessness that pulses as an undercurrent to the musical becomes physically palpable, and oddly, it saddened me a little. Part of my response stemmed from the nihilism that I felt from the show overall, but more to the point, I felt that, if if the musical had been less opaque, the final moments might have been tremendously powerful and maybe even gut-wrenching.
---- Andy Propst
Lazarus plays at New York Theatre Workshop (79 East 4th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: nytw.org.
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