David Bowie was many things: revolutionary, beautiful, and curious. His life in music from the 1960s to his death in 2016 cemented his status as one of the most extraordinary and influential artists of the 20th – and into the 21st – century. He was also constantly unfinished.
Paul Valéry wrote, “A work is never truly completed… but abandoned,” which is a strong theme running through much of Bowie’s artistic life. Indeed, there are numerous instances of him returning to previous work – such as sampling a fragment from an earlier track, or even re-recording entire songs – regardless of how much time has passed.
For those familiar with Bowie’s curtailed attempt in the mid-70s to adapt George Orwell’s novel 1984 into a musical, the news he was working on a new musical in the mid-2010s may not have been too-surprising news, but was news delightfully received. What was intriguing, however, was learning that with Lazarus, Bowie was reaching back to his starring role as Newton in Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 sci-fi film, The Man Who Fell to Earth, to tell the story of what happened next.
In Lazarus, we rediscover Newton, caught in the gin-soaked grip of alcoholism. For any other person, this would be a downward spiral surely ending in death, but Newton cannot die. Years ago (as seen in the film), he failed to save his family on his home planet.
Newton has been wallowing in guilt ever since, with only his manager and personal assistant trying to help him in what barely constitutes a day-to-day ‘life’. These days are long and numbing with little to show, until Newton is visited by a mysterious girl who convinces him there may be something still worth living for: Going home.
Lazarus is a remarkable show by The Production Company, and a brave departure from the sort of shows usually found on their playbill. TPC regulars may be more used to musicals like Oklahoma! or Hello, Dolly! – shows with exclamation marks in their titles and grand set pieces. They may not raise an eyebrow at what is a kind of jukebox musical, but Lazarus – a wondrously quirky show full of sonic loveliness and David Lynch-eqsue aesthetics – succeeds in being so much more than that.
That being said, if anyone in the audience are here only for the songs and nothing else, there’s no shortage of ecstatic joy: The amazement of seeing all of It’s No Game (Part 1) performed; the haunting beauty of Bowie’s reworked arrangement of The Man Who Sold the World now sung as a duet; or hearing his final officially released songs – No Plan, Killing a Little Time, and When I Met You.
Playing in front, behind, and all around a minimal-yet-incredible staging by Set and Costume Designer, Anna Cordingley (seriously, at any time this thing was a window, mirror, or projection screen (often all at once!)) are a raft of wonderful performances:
Chris Ryan plays Newton, giving us a figure weighed down by years of guilt, yet still reachable. Whether it’s the daily diet of gin and Twinkies, his constant Pyjama wearing, or standing near the front of the stage with arms outstretched, Newton’s life is despairing circular.
Chris does lovely work in charting Newton’s precarious way out of a bleak existence. Chris has some heavy lifting song-wise, but handles his numbers tremendously, particularly the opening titular track and an incendiary rendition of Killing A Little Time, later on.
Emily Milledge has great presence and urgency whenever she takes the stage as the Girl. Even if it’s just with a lot of cardboard and tape, she works hard to engender some hopeful feelings inside Newton – even as other forces conspire to keep him on the ground (or even in it). There’s a winsome quality to her songs, which are terrific. No Plan and Life on Mars are obvious standouts – sparse and captivating.
No stranger to covering Bowie songs, IOTA was dangerous and dynamite in his role as Valentine. Much like Rip Torn’s character from Man Who Fell to Earth, Valentine is intent on stopping Newton. While all of the cast are excellently dressed, it’s IOTA who has the best things: Early scenes in white and black as the Thin White Duke – a long distressed flag coat in the style of Alexander McQueen’s Union Jack effort, or a gloriously twisted interpretation of the Pierrot clown.
IOTA definitely brings the right level of menace to the role, depicted splendidly in his turns at Man Who Sold the World and Valentine’s Day, which were both particular highlights.
As Newton’s more-than-a-little-smitten assistant, Elly, Phoebe Panaretos is a revelation. Her acting, from early fluster to unhinged Mary-Lou is superb, while her vocals are astonishing. Always Crashing in the Same Car and Changes are especially remarkable. If you’re not holding your breath from how good she is in some moments, then you’re trying to catch it in others.
In some ways, The Man Who Fell to Earth can be read as a story of Bowie’s early days: A stranger arriving in a strange land with good intentions, but gradually brought low by his own weakness and the nefarious motives of other people. While according to all reports, Bowie only learned of his terminal cancer diagnosis a few months before he died, it’s difficult not to read into Lazarus similar (albeit updated) parallels: A man struggling with his legacy as he increasingly faces his mortality.
It’s story gloriously told by The Production Company. Director, Michael Kantor, Musical Director, Jethro Woodward, the Design team, cast, and crew have brought something exceptional to life on the stage at the Arts Centre. Whether you’re a Bowie fan or not, anyone who appreciates well-produced, challenging, and entertaining theatre will be at home here; a gift of sound and vision.
Playhouse – Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Performance: Saturday 18 May 2019 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 9 June 2019
For more information, visit: www.theproductioncompany.com.au for details.
Image: Chris Ryan and Phoebe Panaretos star in Lazarus – photo by Jeff Busby
Review: David Collins