Watching artists you love make a show that fails to achieve lift-off can be rough. You know they have the talent and vision, but after two hours of waiting for it to appear you realize its not coming. It's the Great Pumpkin, Ivo van Hove! Sadly Lazarus is the turgid musical stage collaboration from director Ivo van Hove, playwright Enda Walsh, and musician David Bowie. It should have been a dream-team but they never manage to make this oddball musical about an alien trapped between worlds work. Like an incongruous series of music videos the visual and musical language of the show seems to oscillate between obtuse literalness or complete abstraction but neither generates excitement, emotional engagement, or dramaturgical meaning.
Based upon the book of The Man Who Fell to Earth (with the book of the musical written by Walsh and Bowie) Mr. Newton (Michael C. Hall) is an alien trapped on earth wishing he could return to his family in the stars. He spends his days drowning his sorrows in gin, Lucky Charms, and twinkies. He is haunted by the image of the woman he was once in love with, Mary-Lou. He's hired an assistant Elly (Cristin Milioti) who finally finds purpose in her life by serving Newton. Mr. Newton starts to see visions of a young girl (Sophia Anne Caruso) who is sent to "help" him. But Valentine (Michael Esper), a menacing baddie, is in search of Newton for unknown nefarious reasons.
Even with this other-worldly premise the constant references to earthbound places in the lyrics grate against the story being told. As is often the case with music not written for the stage if the lyrics are not moving the story ahead, giving insight into characters, or establishing the world of the musical then one starts to wonder what are they even doing there. Here the songs unevenly conjure mood or get illustrated with on-the-nose precision. Mention a place in Berlin and see that place in the projections.
The music itself is equally unruly. Music director, orchestrator and arranger Henry Hay attempts to take some iconic rock songs and turn them into musical theater tunes. Bowie's famously iconoclastic work is inherently difficult to whip into a cohesive music style. Certainly some numbers on their own end up being interesting standalone interpretations (a guttural Changes from Milioti and a quiet, gentle Heroes from Hall) but it does not eliminate the head-scratching going on in this show. Oddly enough, van Hove's Bowie inflected Angels in America felt like a better Bowie musical than this because the music there enhanced emotion already generated by the powerful play.
Only once was there any emotional resonance in Lazarus. As the strange relationship develops between Mr. Newton and the young girl, they have a moment of connection which gives Lazarus a moment of authentic heartache. Van Hove stages this scene using an overhead camera which zooms in on Hall who is splayed out on the floor as he has his reaction. It essentially works as good cinema playing in close-up.
But for a "theater-y" theater director this production is incredibly flat when it comes to visuals. Van Hove is know for his stripped down interpretations of classic plays, but he feels stylistically adrift in this new work. There's a simple palette at play (Newton and his team all in beige, Valentine and his team all in black) with dynamic projections that play out on the surface of the set or create visual layers as they are projected behind the band who are positioned on stage behind plate-glass windows on the set. But its rare that the visuals add emotional vitality to the production.
One of the most successful elements of van Hove's low-key style has been that the emotion of the underlying writing or performances gets elevated in the simplicity of the staging. Or in a minimalist environment slight changes amplify the emotional impact of the work. Here the staging feels empty and no matter what anyone says or sings the pool feels shallow throughout.
Unfortunately this shallow plot leads to some uncomfortable misogyny. The entire story line with Elly veers from the awkward to the maudlin to the highly questionable. Like a sex doll, poor Cristin Milioti positions herself around the stage with pelvis thrust forward waiting for something. She's manipulated by unseen forces and it all comes down to her throwing herself at Newton. Her ongoing tension with her husband is poorly executed and confusing. For a time she walks around in a lace body stocking for no narrative reason. Her unearned meltdown is some sort of manic window-dressing but without anything behind it. Frankly that felt like a metaphor for the whole disappointing endeavor.