Jo Lampert is reason number one to disregard the sophomoric title that David Byrne has given to his new musical: It’s — get ready — Joan of Arc: Into the Fire. The new opus sporting the silly pun is in the LuEsther Mertz Hall at the Public Theater, which means it’s a proscenium presentation and not at all immersive, unlike Byrne’s previous (and vastly overrated) Here Lies Love. The only thing immersive is the fire that the not-yet-sainted Joan inevitably gets into at the end of her short, glorious life. Right up to that moment, and even then as she disappears into a gush of smoke, Lampert, as Joan, excels.
Although she has been singing lustily in Manhattan and elsewhere for some time now, Lampert comes to this role not very well known. She’s spear-thin, dark, lean-faced and uses her forceful, metallic voice with such conviction that she seems an inevitable choice to portray a 16-year-old girl who convinces a failing French army to abide by her dictates. In short, Joan is a star-making part and Lampert is undeniably made. With gender-bending, cross-dressing and all types of non-traditional casting prominent in the theater, Lampert is convincing as a young woman who forsakes female peasant garments and braids for male-cropped hair and military garb in which to train for and enter battle with vigor. At times, she even looks gaunt — as if Joan herself knew her fate.
Since Joan of Arc (let’s just drop Into the Fire) is mostly sung-through, Lampert gets to show off her clarion prowess plenty. Byrne supplies her with severe melodies from the start, such as when she reacts to voices that tell Joan what she must do. The character hears the saints’ prophecies, we should note, but the audience does not. The greater problem inherent in the score, however, is that while the frequent calls to arms are initially rousing, over the 100 minutes it takes for Joan’s story to be told (what with Byrne’s various plot spins), a sameness sets in. It’s the only major drawback to this enterprise, but it’s not a negligible one.
With Byrne is retelling a stark tale, director Alex Timbers crafts a stark production. Frequently given to excessive stage theatrics — the Public’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is another Here Lies Love-like example — Timbers keeps everything lean and mean. Christopher Barreca’s set, enhanced by Darrel Maloney’s projection design (including many fiery reds) mostly consists of bleacher-like steps that shift and often accommodate two guitarists, John Kengla and Ada Westfall, who form part of a six-person band conducted juicily by keyboardist Karl Mansfield.
Appearing singly and then as a company, the men of this mostly male cast populate the set, under Justin Townsend’s shadowy lights. Perhaps the strongest male chorus on view anywhere in Manhattan at the moment — and that might include at the Met — these stouthearted singers lend ballast to Byrne’s songs even as they double as figures from Joan’s brilliant history. Their names are Terence Archie, James Brown III, Jonathan Burke, Rodrick Covington, Sean Allan Krill, Mike McGowan, Dimitri Joseph Moise, Adam Perry, John Schiappa, Kyle Selig and Michael James Shaw. When the original cast album is released, they’ll sound chillingly and heartwarmingly robust, as will the startling Lampert.
But no to the assumption that, aside from Lampert, Joan of Arc has an all-male cast. What follows is a spoiler, but it’s important to note the always-wonderful Mare Winningham in the ensemble. It’s an easy guess as to whom she plays, but no more specifics for now. Clad in black with straight hair glistening, she makes quite a late entrance, at which point she delivers, in a sweet, melancholy voice, the song that audience members will leave humming to themselves. It may be Byrne’s simplest tune, but “Send Her to Heaven” sticks.
Timbers, as noted, may be the Joan of Arc director, but it’s not easy to tell where his handiwork stops and that of choreographer Steven Hoggett begins. His signature is instantly identifiable: he loves to work with men, who execute his most representative moves. He likes, for example, to include what might be called The Hoggett Stomp. NYC theatergoers saw it most recently in Sting’s The Last Ship, and here it is again, deployed briefly. He also favors intriguing close-order drills, which are especially compelling when Joan goes through basic training.
Whenever the saga of the girl from Domremy is recalled, its most alarming segments are those dealing with her infamous trial — where Joan is reduced to confessing her sins and then recanting. Here in this show, she even welcomes burning at the stake. Keep in mind that when you’re routing for France to prevail over the English under Joan and the Dauphin, whom she restores to the throne, you’ve switched allegiances. You’re no longer cheering for Henry V, whose 1413 French conquests Joan and warriors are overturning.
And here’s another interesting Joan of Arc detail that adds to the tenebrous musical’s appeal: When the audience enters, they look at a show curtain on which is written, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. She persisted.” Yes, it’s a terse description of Saint Joan’s experience, but it was said of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, as you may recall. Talk about what’s at stake.
Of course, whether Warren is a modern-day Joan isn’t in question. Or perhaps it is, since Timbers is stretching to make Joan a contemporary figure. What she really is is timeless.