Performance

Hearing a Poignant Eulogy in David Bowie’s First Musical

Michael C. Hall in 'Lazarus' (photo by Jan Versweyveld)
Michael C. Hall in ‘Lazarus’ (photo by Jan Versweyveld, all images courtesy New York Theatre Workshop)

The musical Lazarus, currently nearing the end of a sold-out run at the New York Theatre Workshop, is the closest we’ll get to a final David Bowie performance. Directed by Ivo van Hove and co-created by Bowie and playwright Enda Walsh, the show catches up with Earth-trapped alien Thomas Newtown (Michael C. Hall), played by Bowie in the 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth. He’s become a rich recluse who subsists on Lucky Charms cereal and gin, a “dying man who can’t die,” he says.

Brynn Williams, Michael Esper, and Krystina Alabado in 'Lazarus' (photo by Jan Versweyveld)
Brynn Williams, Michael Esper, and Krystina Alabado in ‘Lazarus’ (photo by Jan Versweyveld) (click to enlarge)

The plot is baffling and bizarre, involving a girl ghost (Sophia Anne Caruso) who promises hope, but the show offers two hours without intermission of some of Bowie’s most moving songs of universal alienation. It also includes four new songs created for the piece, all of them featured on his album Blackstar, which was released just before his death yesterday from cancer. Van Hove, who was one of the few to know the extent of Bowie’s illness, told NPO Radio 4: “Bowie was still writing on his deathbed, you could say. I saw a man fighting. He fought like a lion and kept working like a lion through it all. I had incredible respect for that.”

In “Lazarus,” Blackstar‘s single (released with a striking video of Bowie singing from a hospital bed), Hall intones with defiant melancholy: “Look up here, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen / I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen / Everybody knows me now.”

Michael C. Hall and Sophia Anne Caruso in 'Lazarus' (photo by Jan Versweyveld)
Michael C. Hall and Sophia Anne Caruso in ‘Lazarus’ (photo by Jan Versweyveld)

I had no thoughts of Lazarus being a eulogy when I saw it on Saturday. Sitting in the front row, I had a close view of Hall already motionless on the stage when I entered, the man who fell to Earth waiting to arise again. Although Bowie himself doesn’t appear in the show, even in the flickering videos at the center of the stage, his fluid personas are present in each of the characters. Accompanied by loose rock arrangements, performed by a band visible at the back of the stage through Plexiglas, Caruso sings an emotional and patient “This Is Not America,” Cristin Milioti (as Newton’s assistant, Elly) rips through the unhinged internal agony of “Changes,” and Michael Esper (as a menacing and murderous Valentine) is surrounded by black balloons that float over the stage as he croons a devilish “Valentine’s Day.” And whatever song Hall’s alien character, who wants only to escape his immortality on Earth and go home, takes on evokes the universal yearning that makes even Bowie’s weirdest work engaging. He belts the 2013 “Where Are We Now?,” which Bowie never performed live, since his last time on stage was in 2006, against video projections of Berlin.

Directed by van Hove, who punctuated his 2014 Angels in America with Bowie songs and whose A View from the Bridge is also currently running on Broadway, the show is minimal in its aesthetics — the stage is blinding white, with the suggestions of an apartment, and the roots of each song are exposed in the new orchestrations. Seeping puddles of spilled milk, an outline of a spaceship in tape, and a brightly illuminated refrigerator are among the sparse visual effects, although each is treated like something monumental.

The last moment of Lazarus features the alien and the ghost singing a very anti-heroic take on “Heroes,” since the hope offered by the song is brief after all: “Though nothing, will drive them away / We can beat them, just for one day.” The last view we get is Hall sprawled on a drawing of a spaceship, illuminated alone against the darkness. Escape for the man who cannot die comes only from freeing his mind from its desperation, and while that’s a bleak message, it’s the kind of hope in the face of human isolation that was expertly offered by Bowie, and that we will now miss.

Lazarus continues at the New York Theater Workshop (79 E 4th Street, East Village, Manhattan) through January 20. 

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