Ground control to Major Tom and everyone else on earth or floating somewhere in space: David Bowie and Enda Walsh have spun a captivating musical from the 1976 film adaptation of Walter Tevis’s novel, The Man Who Fell to Earth (starring Bowie himself).
The new opus, Lazarus, is captivating — ferociously — in its world premiere at the New York Theatre Workshop, but not necessarily to everyone’s immediate taste and not without occasionally dry and/or confounding patches.
In the work (which does deviate from the movie), Thomas Jerome Newton (Michael C. Hall) is some sort of disenchanted alien celebrity who has retreated into a world of TV-watching, spirits-guzzling (his fridge only contains gin bottles) and ingesting Twinkies (the edible kind, not the young male kind). Being named Thomas, he recalls the “Tom” of Tevis’s novel and subsequent film. You could say that while Tom feels he’s been dropped onto Earth from another planet, he isn’t so much an alien as an Earthling neurotically — bordering on psychotically — alienated.
In his disturbed state, Tom wonders back and cross along Jan Versweyveld’s high cell-like set. It’s an ascetic environment featuring a huge vertical flat screen upstage center that often interacts with real and imaginary figures, not the least of which is a young girl (Sophia Anne Caruso). Trying hopelessly to quit his despair, Thomas’s conjuring of the young girl is only one of his desperate moves. At other moments during the 90-minute, intermissionless piece, he encounters associates like Michael (Charles Pollock), whose attempts to relieve Tom’s torpor go nowhere, and opponents like menacing Valentine (Michael Esper). Elly (Cristin Milioti), Tom’s housekeeper, has her own problems, including Zach (Bobby Moreno), her jealous husband. Later, Elly seems to represent blue-rinsed-hair Mary Lou — someone Tom has lost. (When Tom rises from the supine position he assumed as the audience entered the theater, he’s listening to Ricky Nelson’s old chart ditty “Mary Lou,” which Bowie didn’t write.)
As these visitors (interlopers?) come and go in aid of or in confrontation with Tom and his desires, his wish for liberation is figuratively represented by a rocket outlined on the floor — and his reliance on the girl. His inebriated determination to rise, like Lazarus, from spiritual death, intensifies.
Reporting whether Tom does or doesn’t rise isn’t the purpose of this review. Describing how he approaches that goal is. And it’s crucial here to explain that anyone expecting a linear plot from Bowie, Walsh or director Ivo von Hove is in for a jolt.
This is also to say that the logic of Lazarus often crosses into the illogical — it helps to liken this show not to standard stage musicals but music videos. Yet if music videos are often the driver of the show’s charm, it is also the source of some befuddlement. Tal Yarden’s video design emphasizes this, with all sorts of wondrous things taking place on that dominant flat screen. Mary Lou, in her blue hair, appears there. Figures come into view that then walk on stage, including Caruso’s enormously appealing girl, wearing an outfit (from costumer An d’Huys) that is the same color as Tom’s. (The girl has to be appealing: she represents hope.)
Let’s just say that the creative team may well have taken their inspiration from something like the lyrics to “Life on Mars,” the magnificent Bowie song heard in this show, along with inclusions that Bowie fans will know note for note. The song’s intriguing words and thoughts hop, skip and jump around even as they mesmerize. It’s all hardly conventional, but then, neither is Lazarus.
Yarden’s endeavors are often enhanced by Versweyveld’s lighting design. A stunning example occurs after a knifing that takes place against the screen. At first, projected red ink fills the screen and then red lights flow from it onto the entire set. Surely, this is one of the season’s most spectacular projection and lighting effects.
Bowie’s music, coming directly or obliquely to enhance the moment, is preeminent. With Bowie-rock authority, cast members sing “Life on Mars” and the other new and old songs that make up the score. Hall, not too long past his Hedwig and the Angry Inch replacement duties, confirms his musical acuity. Once alumna Milioti confirms hers, too. The enormous gift to Lazarus is the well-surnamed Caruso, whose soaring high notes and eventually showstopping vibrato are a joy to hear.
Bowie’s contributions are heartily played by a band often seen facing the audience through upstage windows flanking the flat screen. Led by music director/arranger Henry Hey at the synthesizer, they’re drummer Brian Delaney, saxophonist Lucas Dodd, bassist Fima Ephron, trombonist Karl Lyden, guitarist Chris McQueen and second guitarist/auxiliary keyboardist JJ Appleton. Profuse thanks should also go to often-unheralded vocal supervisor Liz Caplan.
And now a few words about von Hove, whose name first became known in New York theater when he unfurled his iconoclastic take on Eugene O’Neill’s More Stately Mansions at New York Theatre Workshop back in 1997. Whether or not you appreciate his attention to subtext more than text (mine waxes and wanes), he also has an outstanding A View From the Bridge revival currently on Broadway and returns to Arthur Miller with The Crucible later this Broadway season.
With Lazarus, by contrast, he builds a project from the ground up for (is it?) the first time. Not having to unwrap his take on something already established, and not having to venture far with it, he looks to be having a dandy time. The result is exemplary.