David Bowie. Musical theatre. Two ideas that don’t seem like they could blend seamlessly together. The Production Company tackles this dichotomy head-on and creates a thrilling collaborative work with their production of Lazarus. Much like Bowie, this production seems to deftly walk the line between well-constructed minimalism and outlandish eccentricity.
First performed late 2015 in New York, Lazarus is one of the last gifts Bowie gave us before he died in January 2016. The show’s first number is “Lazarus”, a song on his final album Black Star, exploring the theme of life after death. Forever dividing opinion with his art, Bowie created Lazarus with Enda Walsh, inspired by Walter Tevis’ 1963 novel The Man Who Fell to Earth. It’s a story Bowie knew well, having played the lead in the 1976 film adaptation of the same name.
Lazarus is a story about a lot of things. More literally, it’s about Thomas Jerome Newton (Chris Ryan) who is an alien stuck on Earth and struggling with not aging while life keeps moving forward around him. Thematically, it’s about love, loss, death, freedom and being isolated in a connected world. The depths of this story are rather remarkable and it’s a real joy that director Michael Kantor and his team ensured that this production remained open to interpretation as was intended.
It’s easy to draw the parallels between this narrative and perhaps how Bowie viewed himself, or at least how we viewed him. A man not quite of this world, trapped here. “Thematically, I’ve always dealt with isolation in everything I’ve written, so it’s something that triggers me off a bit. It always makes me interested in a new project if it has anything to do with alienation or isolation,” he said in an interview regarding the film.
Chris Ryan’s despondent Newton drives the story of Lazarus: a gin-soaked, twinkie-stuffed, desperate man broken by his dying state, and tortured by an inability to die. Newton’s loneliness shapes the lives of the characters and Ryan delivers this deep melancholy with crushing sincerity. Ryan’s strong voice in the first song “Lazarus” sets the brooding and troubling tone for the rest of the show. His Newton is genuine and every bit laced with the eccentricities of this otherworldly character.
Emily Milledge’s songs as Girl highlights Bowie’s playfulness and creativity with clashing notes and Milledge manages these difficult vocals impressively. Bringing a youthful energy to the show, her earnestness as Girl, whether in conversation, song or building a cardboard rocket, brings some levity to the usually heavy show. Milledge’s genuine vigor combined with a mighty voice lends a dose of reality to the otherwise ethereal show.
iOTA seems to be cut from the same cloth as Bowie. It only makes sense that the Australian debut of Bowie’s musical features iOTA as Valentine. Wearing costumes reminiscent of the Thin White Duke and The Blue Clown (Pierrot) and hinting to Bowie’s Alexander McQueen Earthling coat of the 90s, every second of his performance embodies Bowie, whether that be tonally or physically.
Phoebe Panaretos as Elly is a powerhouse. With a voice that echoes the likes of Lady Gaga, Panaretos’ presence is entirely captivating, displaying a huge range in her vocal performance. Like all Lazarus characters, Elly may or may not be a figment of Newton’s imagination, so is helplessly victim to his desire for the return of his lost love. Panaretos takes full control of this complex character arc and continues to dive head first into less conventional musical theatre roles and succeeds time and time again.
Mike McLeish as Michael delivers a particularly powerful moment in this show with “The Man Who Sold the World”. The rest of the ensemble cast take on varied and impressive roles, all showcasing Stephanie Lake’s striking choreography and weaving through the twisted storyline. These actors are incredible dancers and singers. Lazarus doesn’t seem like an easy show for those involved, but the end result is worth it.
Much of the stage is taken up by 14 vertical screens used in various ways. They display Natasha Pincus’ impactful visuals and double as a physical manifestation of the divide between reality and Newton. The lighting and technology involved here helps to drive the modernity of this show and capture the ever-imposing presence of screens on our day-to-day lives. Anna Cordingley’s costumes and sets are thoughtful and her research and attention to detail on Bowie-esque costumes, particularly for Valentine, are inspired.
The Newton character on screen is wearing similar pyjamas to Bowie in the music video for “Lazarus”, even wearing a bandage textured headpiece reflecting that of Bowie’s in the music video. There are plenty of details for Bowie fans to pick up on and I imagine it may take more than one viewing to do so.
Many fans will have booked to see Lazarus purely for the opportunity to hear Bowie’s timeless music, so Musical Director Jethro Woodward is faced with what could be a tough job. Together with The Production Company Orchestra, he brings Bowie’s music to life each night live and they deliver on this astoundingly well. Bowie fans are sure to be thrilled with the different renditions of much-loved favourites, as well as songs written purely for this show. A highlight is being able to watch the band through the screens intermittently. Musical highlights of Lazarus include Panaretos’ “Changes”, iOTA’s “Valentine’s Day” and the final number, “Heroes” performed by Ryan and Milledge.
Mixing David Bowie with musical theatre was never going to result in a universally understood or liked show. If there is one thing we know for certain, it’s that Bowie never followed the rules. So why should we expect anything different from his musical?
The Production Company has many loyal subscribers who now have the opportunity to see a show many of them typically wouldn’t seek out, and they’ve brought many others into their circle who will hopefully adventure further into the world of musical theatre after seeing this triumphant production. The entire team behind this mammoth endeavour clearly cares deeply about conveying the art in the most authentic way possible. It’s humbling and inspiring.
This production of Lazarus is haunting, sexy, bold, provocative and so much more. It’s visually striking and the music is heavenly. I imagine David Bowie will forever remain an enigma in the most positive sense to most of us, but Lazarus gifts audiences with a truly special and memorable piece of art.
Lazarus is on at Arts Centre Melbourne’s Playhouse until Sunday 9 June 2019.
For more information and tickets: http://lazarusthemusical.com.au/