“This is not a miracle”—or so Sophia Anne Caruso sings in her introductory number, an eerie reworking of Bowie’s mid-1980s collaboration with the Pat Metheny Group. And if her arrival on stage, preceded by an appearance on a TV screen, must be said to have possessed a certain miraculousness to it, I like to think my initial mishearing of the line was more truthful: “This is not a musical.” Lazarus has actors, sure, along with a lot of music and a little plot, but its aims are not to entertain with the usual threefold combination of story, song, and dance. Rather, like a great art project, it is out to leave a profound, bittersweet impression on its audience. In other words, it’s out to express.
Written in collaboration with Enda Walsh, Lazarus follows the final descent into madness of Thomas Newton (Michael C. Hall), the immortal alien previously played by David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1975). We meet him years later, racked by loneliness and alcoholism, spending his days locked in his apartment watching television and drinking gin. With a main character so prone to hallucinations, the show’s proceedings, surreal as they are—from the murders committed by the deranged Valentine (Michael Esper) to the visits of the strange Girl (Sophia Anne Caruso)—happen somewhere between reality and illusion. One thing is certain, however: Newton, haunted by past love, finishes by surrendering completely to his delusions, and does so (it is worth noting) via a pared-down duet of “Heroes.” How else was a Bowie show ever going to end?
It is no surprise the production revolves around Bowie’s music, and has for its soundtrack a mélange of reworked old classics, songs from his past two albums, as well as three new tracks (released this month as part of the No Plan EP). As you’d expect, Lazarus is musically remarkable in every possible sense—that is, beyond the obvious songwriting prowess of the late Dame, the reorchestrations are moody and meticulous, and fit fairly well within the maddening action on stage (or is it the other way around?). Highlights include the Girl’s “This Is Not America” mentioned above, along with a low-fi “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” and The Next Day’s “Where Are We Now” and “Valentine’s Day.”
The main cast was kept nearly intact since the show’s first run in New York a year ago—only Newton’s assistant Elly (who suffers a breakdown of her own), originally played by Cristin Milioti, was here interpreted by Amy Lennox. Their performances succeed where they should, adding a semblance of life to the dream reel, with each new scene played out as if remembered from beyond a troubled mind (or a mid-morning hangover, perhaps). Michael C. Hall impersonates the Thin White Duke to perfection, taking a haunted voice and latent intonations, even if he does not have quite Bowie’s range. Something that isn’t however a problem for 15-year-old Sophia Anne Caruso, as her voice stood out from the rest of the cast with mesmerizing strength.
Michael Esper, as the murderous lunatic Valentine—out to kill love (get it?)—likewise steals the show with a magnetic performance, well-aided by Ivo Van Hove’s atmospheric direction. The set, minimal and monochrome, is made expansive by acting as a giant projection screen for the show’s most striking scenes, and is most notably flooded with black during “Valentine’s Day.”
Yet it is ultimately Bowie himself who dominates Lazarus and gives the production its emotional power. There is a dark, moody nostalgia present throughout, from the images of Berlin shown during “Where Are We Now” to the final scene, where a dejected Newton finally finds happiness by abandoning the world (and, one should think, dying). It is as that—a beautiful, melancholy testament to the musician’s oeuvre that Lazarus succeeds where not many have before: turning 110 minutes of atmospheric performance into a powerful show.