New York City Theater
New York Theatre Workshop
It’s one of the hottest tickets in town. No wonder. With music by other-worldly, glam-rocker David Bowie, direction by current fair-haired darling Ivo van Hove, scenic and lighting design by Jan Versweyveld and a smashing performance by Michael C. Hall, “Lazarus” has the makings of a major work. But, alas, ‘tis not to be. Building on the 1976 Nicolas Roeg film, “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” in which Bowie played alien Thomas Newton who visits our small planet to find water for his celestial home, “Lazarus” wants to explore what Newton’s life would be like if he couldn’t return home, and couldn’t die.
Hitting the same points over and over and over again, the quasi-musical (“quasi” because the songs, while wonderful, don’t particularly advance the action) eventually wearies. In an effort to be as expressionistic as possible, the production squeezes out not only elucidation but emotion.
Pining for his former girlfriend, Mary Lou, Newton, a wealthy alcoholic, is beset by Elly who changes her appearance to look like Mary Lou, blue hair and all. That Elly is married to long-suffering Zach is no barrier. A character identified only as Girl wants to help Newton return home, while the villainous Valentine, a death figure, thwarts him.
Newton is caught between worlds. “Not yet marked by this place, not pinned down, praying for a death that can never come,” He yearns for a different kind of beauty. Yet he also yearns, apparently, for earth’s pleasures. There’s no past and no future, no here and no there.
Or so it would seem, since trying to make sense out of the evening is futile. Masked figures mix with Japanese geishas. A real fridge filled with gin bottles is upstaged by Tal Yarden’s beautiful video projections that merge live and film action. Distant images are shown walking towards us, emerging on stage as live entities.
We also have Bowie’s songs, each one a gleaming gem and sung by Hall and the cast with Bowie-like precision. “Changes,” “Life on Mars” and the title song, among many others, prove what a rare talent Bowie has always been. As performed by music director Henry Hey and his terrific band, the music out-shines the dazed script by Bowie and Enda Walsh, inspired by the 1963 novel by Walter Tevis.
If Hall is not directed to capture Bowie’s androgyny, he certainly gives a spot-on impression of the singer’s voice and intonations and his acting is soulful. Cristin Milioti’s Elly is a fervent figure, while Sophia Anne Caruso’s Girl is ethereal, Bobby Moreno’s Zack is tender and Michael Esper’s Valentine is wonderfully dangerous.
They give their all, of course, to an evening that seesaws between torturous and stirring. The projections are magical, not more so than when the rocket created by masking tape on the stage floor, is then seen, projected, as the vehicle geared to return Newton to his planet. It does take off, although “Lazarus” doesn’t.
--David A. Rosenberg
December 15, 2015