By Brian Scott Lipton
Does “Lazarus,” the highly anticipated musical that has finally arrived at New York Theatre Workshop, achieve liftoff or remain dead on the ground? I suspect the answer depends, in part, on your familiarity with the one-and-only David Bowie, who has provided a mixture of past catalogue songs and new tunes for this show, a sequel of sorts to “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” the cult 1976 film in which Bowie played humanoid alien Thomas Newton. Indeed, if Newton, “Changes,” or “All the Young Dudes” mean nothing to you, I fear this strange musical might leave you a bit numb. Personally, I remained fairly transfixed throughout the intermissionless two hours.
Admittedly, the show’s new book by Tony winner Enda Walsh (“Once”) doesn’t always hold one’s attention or easily meld with Bowie’s music. And no matter how many tricks (familiar and otherwise) the innovative director Ivo Van Hove and his talented collaborators (including set designer Jan Versweyveld, video designer Tal Yarden, and choreographer Annie B-Parson) use to distract the audience, the slimness of the story never completely disappears. Moreover, at times, the sensory overload is practically overwhelming.
Yet, what grounds the show is the central performance of Michael C. Hall as Newton, who came to our planet leaving behind his family, and remains stuck here – unable to leave or die – and who has retreated into a world of gin, Twinkies, and endless daydreams and nightmares. This powerful actor, who actually looks almost unearthly here, not only captures Newton’s desperation, but he has practically transformed his voice into Bowie’s, giving added resonance to such songs as “Heroes” and “Absolute Beginners.” It’s one of the year’s most memorable star turns.
Equally fine, if not almost better, is young Sophia Anne Caruso as the Girl, who may be purely a figment of Newton’s imagination, but also provides him with his only hopes of returning home. Her rendition of one of Bowie’s signature tunes, “Life on Mars,” is simply magnificent. The great Cristin Millioti delves deeply, almost scarily so, into the role of Elly, an unhappy housewife who becomes Newton’s assistant and tries to transform herself into his lost love, Mary Lou, Meanwhile, the always reliable Michael Esper gives his own 100 percent into making something comprehensible of the murderous Valentine. (He doesn’t really succeed.) And Van Hove has even coaxed a Tony-winning star into providing a few chilling minutes on video!
Like its cinematic predecessor, “Lazarus” is destined to attract a strong cult of devoted followers amidst a bevy of naysayers.
Lazarus is at New York Theatre Workshop (79 East 4th Street) through January 20. Running time: 2 hours.