Is David Bowie‘s off-Broadway musical Lazarus the greatest anti-drinking PSA ever made? For decades, the musical’s central character, millionaire alien Thomas Newton, has imprisoned himself in his own apartment purgatory, drinking gin after gin after gin until he’s so numb that he’s begun seeing people who aren’t there and is immune to the advances of his attractive assistant. This is the same Tommy Newton who, as Bowie portrayed him in the 1976 Nicolas Roeg film The Man Who Fell to Earth, gleefully fired blanks at his lover during sex and allowed doctors to experiment on him so long as he could watch TV. Has drinking really ruined him, or is it something else? It’s hard to say.
Lazarus, a beautifully nuanced production that will be staged at the 200-seat New York Theatre Workshop through January 17th, continually emphasizes the surreal over the explicit at nearly every turn. People splash through milk. Others pop dozens of balloons. Strange women sniff others’ lingerie (frequently). Impromptu kabuki actors invade the stage. And through it all, Newton — played by golden-throated Michael C. Hall, who is best known for his roles on Dexter and Six Feet Under but whose theatrical credits include big roles in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Cabaret and Chicago — mostly remains stoic, lonely, yearning. At its core, Lazarus is a two-hour meditation on grief and lost hope (with no intermission), but it takes so many wild, fantastical, eye-popping turns that it never drags.
Bowie, who does not take the stage in Lazarus, wrote the musical with Enda Walsh (Once, book) as a sequel to the 1963 novel, by Walter Tevis, that inspired the film he starred in. The set list comprises some of the singer’s big hits (“Changes,” “All the Young Dudes,” “Heroes”), fan favorites (“Life on Mars,” an almost Prince-like reworking of “The Man Who Sold the World”) and deep cuts (“Always Crashing in the Same Car,” “This Is Not America”), as well as a handful of new songs, but its story is unique enough that it doesn’t feel like a jukebox musical. Where Movin’ Out owes its debt to Billy Joel and Holla If Ya Hear Me to 2Pac, Lazarus is unique in that it’s more an homage to Tevis than to Bowie; the story stands on its own, and that’s why it’s good.
The way that the cast and director Ivo van Hove (Scenes From a Marriage) have refused to discuss the plot with the press, suggesting it should be enjoyed on an “emotional level,” is a disservice to a fairly cogent storyline. After all, the film The Man Who Fell to Earth, with its time-traveling flashbacks, goop-sex montages and visions of a sandy planet beleaguered by drought, isn’t much more self-evident.
In the musical, Newton wakes up one day in a bereft, alcoholic stupor, pining for Mary-Lou, the blue-haired earthling who years ago introduced him to gin and television, so he pulls her clothing from under his bed for a good whiff. His assistant, Elly — powerfully played by the seemingly elastic Cristin Milioti, who played the Mother on How I Met Your Mother and who plays a pivotal role in the current, stunning season of Fargo — is in a crumbling marriage and latches on to the idea that Newton adores Mary-Lou indefatigably and attempts to become her. Meanwhile, an angelic muse (Sophia Anne Caruso) visits Newton in visions with promises to bring him back to his home planet, and a Marvel-worthy supervillain named Valentine (Michael Esper), who seems unwittingly hell-bent on killing romance, menaces everyone throughout, leading to an unexpected conclusion. The production wanders a bit from Tevis’ taut “Poor Little Rich Boy” theme, but its inherent Bowie-ness works.
What makes Lazarus more than your run-of-the-mill drunk-alien-can’t-die-so-he-teams-with-an-invisible-friend-to-build-a-rocket story is van Hove’s (and likely also Bowie’s) imaginative eye. The set is sparse: an open fridge filled with gin bottles, a record player and stacks of LPs (by the show’s creator), a ruffled bed and windows that offer scenic views of the band. A giant TV screen mirrors the onstage action and, in a strange turn, offers an odd glimpse of a repentant Alan Cumming, and the set itself is often bathed in projections. But everything becomes so much more than ordinary, especially when the actors come alive.
Hall somehow channels Bowie’s cutting vocal tone when he sings and even affects the singer’s slight vibrato. Milioti deftly transitions from pensive crooning to full-on howling as she cannonballs across the room, all in the course of “Changes,” and pulls off other acrobatic feats while singing. (Note, too, that the most alien thing about the production isn’t Newton but the Nosferatu-like way the actress lifts her body from a lying position to standing in less than a second while wearing stilettos.) Caruso breathes just enough drama into the cavemen and sailors of “Life on Mars” after years of overdramatic cover versions. It’s all strange and wonderful and heartbreaking and funny in alternating measure. (At one point, during previews, the audience broke out into laughter when a rocket ship gaffer-taped to the floor sprouted “blast-off” wind behind it on the big TV.)
Lazarus may bear all the earmarks of a bad idea — a continuation of another story, a single-artist soundtrack, a television serial killer singing — but the plot is coherent, the songs are great and the performances are kinetic. Newton’s unflappable loneliness is depressing, but it’s also compelling. Maybe all the drinking was worth it after all.