Monday, December 07, 2015

"Lazarus" In Previews

by Dick Mac

I saw the first preview of "Lazarus" and now that it has opened and has been reviewed in the mainstream media, I offer you this review I wrote of the 18 November performance:

by David Bowie and Enda Walsh
Directed by Ivo van Hove
at New York Theatre Workshop
Opening Preview, November 18, 2015

Previews can be dangerous.  What if I hate it, and they don't change it before the Opening? What if I love it, but it's changed before the Opening?  What if it's more like "hours..." than Scary Monsters?  Maybe I should just wait for the Opening?

Don't be stupid!

The first preview of Lazarus played at the New York Theatre Workshop last night and there wasn't a chance in hell I'd miss it.  Seemingly there were thousands of others who felt the same way.  The entire run sold out in an hour, and it is one of the hottest tickets in town.  While standing in line with friends at TKTS in Times Square hours before the show, I told one of the staff working the line that I was seeing Lazarus tonight.  He and his colleagues were envious beyond belief.

Lazarus is a new play/musical written by David Bowie and Enda Walsh, directed by Ivo van Hove, and starring Michael C. Hall.

Many theatrical pieces based on the music of famous pop stars have been produced over the past three decades.  Some are hugely successful and some are total flops.  A theatrical production of the music of David Bowie doesn't sound right, now, does it?  There must be more to it.

And there is.

The story of Lazarus is based on the 1963 Walter Tevis novel "The Man Who Fell To Earth" and it picks-up the story of Thomas Jerome Newton where it was left off by Nicholas Roeg in his 1976 movie release of the same name, starring David Bowie.  The music for Lazarus is almost exclusively from David Bowie's existing catalog, and adds at least 4 new songs he has written for the production.

Let's start with the familiar:  the music of David Bowie.  

The soundtrack borrows heavily from Bowie's last release "The Next Day," along with massive hits, anthems, and obscure gems. The show opens with a new song (title unknown) that is unmistakably Bowie, and continues with "It's No Game" (Scary Monsters), "This Is Not America" (single), "The Man Who Sold The World" (TMWSTW), another new song, "Love Is Lost" (The Next Day), "Changes" (Hunky Dory), "Where Are We Now" (The Next Day), Absolute Beginners (single), "Dirty Boys" (The Next Day), another new song, "Life On Mars" (Hunky Dory), "All The Young Dudes" (outtake), "Sound + Vision" (Low), "Ashes To Ashes" (Scary Monsters), "Always Crashing In The Same Car" (Low), "Valentine's Day" (The Next Day), another new song, and "Heroes" (Heroes).

The renditions of the songs are mostly new arrangements sung by the cast, and some of the performances are emotional and moving (yes, to tears). The one song that doesn't really work for me, but is enhanced by spectacular video, is "Where Are We Now." I think it was inevitable that, as is true with all art, something was going to feel forced or contrived, and this is the only instance in the soundtrack.  Yes, a wonderful song; but, I didn't feel it in the context of the story.  Literally every other song successfully advanced the plot line or illuminated the scene in which it was performed.

Now slightly less familiar: the story. 

If you read the book or saw the movie "The Man Who Fell To Earth," you are likely familiar with the two characters that make their way into Lazarus: Thomas Jerome Newton (the actual man who fell to Earth) and Mary-Lou (his love interest).  At the end of the story that we know, Newton has resigned himself to a life of alcoholic oblivion enhanced by uncountable riches, and Mary-Lou has abandoned the loveless relationship.

Lazarus opens with Newton (Michael C. Hall) sleeping, then eating, then drinking in his New York apartment.  We meet Elly, his new assistant (Cristin Milioti), and then a very confusing character, Michael (Charlie Pollock) whose part in the story is vague at best, confusing in every aspect, and rather inconsequential.  If it were not for his demise, which informs the demise of others later in the story, he would be completely forgettable. His lines are delivered very well, but are almost pedestrian given the complex story-telling skills of the writers.  Pollock is a good actor, and the character and his part in the story in their current form, are not worthy of such a talent.  The character needs to be developed more effectively, be given better lines, or introduced later in the story.

The completely unfamiliar: the Lazarus narrative.

One of my favorite dynamics of Bowie’s creativity is his discussion of, celebration of, fear of, victories over, and pain caused by mental illness.  There is no other contemporary artist in any discipline that so effectively weaves the thread of mental illness (in many of its forms) through his or her work.  Bowie brings it to new levels, whether it is schizophrenia, addiction, or depression, he addresses it with compassion, humor, and aplomb.  Lazarus is no different.

Newton’s alcoholism, his manias and phobias rooted in the abuse he has suffered at the hands of Earthlings, his total inability to form healthy relationships, his fear of intimacy, and his crippling refusal to move out of the past, all create a complex character that Bowie and Walsh have made even more dynamic than the original story.

His crushing self-hatred connected to Mary-Lou’s abandonment at the end of the last story, is aggravated and challenged by Elly’s infatuation with him.  She enters Newton’s world each day after she leaves the loveless home she shares with her husband, Zach (Bobby Moreno).  As Elly learns more about Mary-Lou, her own struggles with mental illness throw a confused dynamic into her relationship with Newton. They become simultaneously antagonistic and sympathetic.  They form bonds of love and fear, hatred and passion.  She desperately wants to help Newton out of his personal hell, and his refusal to accept her creates magnificent tension and conflict resulting in a schizophrenic break that makes Elly more endearing and more frightening as the story advances.

Then there is Valentine (Michael Esper) who starts small and insignificant and grows in stature and character as the plot advances.  This complex role demands a perseverance and creative drive of which Esper should be very proud.  He is funny and scary, he is elegant and dreadful.  He sings and moves with the strength of two men.  I won’t say that he gives the best performance of all, but I look forward to hearing what others think of him.

Cristin Milioti is amazing as Elly, and she delivers a top-notch performance of this potentially confusing role.  The serious physical demands of the part are not for the faint of heart.  She moves fiercely through the staging as beautifully as she does through the character.  Even when catatonic she commands a presence that is inescapable.  She and Michael C. Hall work as protagonist and antagonist as well as any two actors you will see.

Hall’s performance is superb, and given the challenging nature of the character and the story, this is no small feat.  Each of the actors with whom he shares intimate scenes:  Milioti, Esper, Pollock, and the amazingly talented, young Sophia Anne Caruso, are catapulted to new heights in their roles by his work.

The relationship between Hall’s Thomas Newton and Caruso’s unnamed (but eventually named) Girl, is as beautiful, intimate, and ecstatic as a relationship between an adult and a child can be without feeling totally wrong, creepy, and inappropriate.  They share intimacy and conflict that most of us will never encounter (or understand).  Their journey through Newton’s mental illness, to the conclusion of their relationship excited and frightened me.  Their final duet left me in tears.

Ben (Nicholas Christopher) and Maemi (Lynn Craig) initially seem like incidental characters with a fun, very New York story.  Their wedding becomes part of the story and Christopher delivers a rendition of “All The Young Dudes” that is sexy beyond imagination.  Craig is a strong singer herself, and the physical demands of her role make her stand out on a crowded stage.  She is left to sing the second verse of “All The Young Dudes,” which almost feels like an afterthought on the part of the writers or director.  Her partner delivers the hyper-masculine anthem with sexual energy that left me wanting more from him; and since it is such a “boy” song, switching the sexes of the singers is awkward.  It’s unfair to Craig, and she should be given the opportunity to sing a song that is more appropriate for a female lead.  She delivers, nonetheless, and the awkwardness of the scene is by no means created by her.

There are three actresses who play angels, or muses, or devils, or guilty consciences, or charitable volunteers, or all of the above.  Krystyna Alabado, Krista Pioppi, and Brynn Williams, weave their way through the most intense scenes of the play, by directing dialog, movement, or scene development, instructing characters how to behave, or undermining the fragile mental health of the main characters.  As singers, they are collectively wonderful at providing background vocals (both visibly and secluded).  Alabado is the most featured of the three and has a commanding presence.  She is beautiful, dignified, and has an elegant movement through the scenes that makes her even more appealing.

Elly’s husband Zach returns later in the story, after their marriage is all but destroyed by his wife’s relationship with Newton.  Moreno is a handsome actor with a very strong presence. He is the only member of the ensemble with no singing part, which pushes him to the background to a degree; but he offers his role as a controlling, insecure, chauvinistic husband convincingly.  The husband’s demands are typically metrosexual and unbecoming, and Moreno breathes life into a character that we might not want to like very much.  He convinced me to feel sympathy for the character, even when the husband was behaving his worst.

The staging includes the 7-piece band behind glass at the back of the stage.  This makes them and the music, appropriately, an integral part of the story.  This is the music of David Bowie.  Bowie has formed some of the most amazing rock bands in the history of the art form. Having the band seen as part of the ensemble is, in retrospect, genius.

New York Theatre Workshop is a comfortable space that seats about 200 people.  There isn’t a bad seat in the house, and the acoustics are great.

At this time, Lazarus is completely sold-out for its run through mid-January.  There are day-of-show cancellation tickets available, and there is a very clearly marked area for that queue outside the Theatre.  If you don’t have tickets, and have the time to get in line, try it.

I can’t wait to see what the show looks like on Opening Night, December 9th.

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