By Frances Marion Givhan
Michael C. Hall lies in the middle of the stage as theatre goers file into the King’s Cross Theatre, London. His chest moves up and down as he breathes, an observation that notes the intimacy of the space and show. Young audience members mumble, “Is that the guy from ‘Dexter’?” while most people hum with anticipation for the music. The monotone beige of the walls, floor, and set pieces on the stage give little clue as to the musical’s content, but the first explosion of noise startles the theatre and rings with the audience throughout the show.
Lazarus, the musical written by David Bowie and Enda Walsh, vibrates with the energy of the actors, supplemented by the nostalgic notes and new interpretation of Bowie’s songs. Bowie wrote songs for the production and rearranged older songs to fit the show. The musical was inspired by the 1963 novel The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis, and Bowie portrayed the main character in the 1976 movie (New York Theatre Workshop). The production originated in New York City at the New York Theatre Workshop.
The premise begins with Hall as Thomas Jerome Newton, who immediately demonstrates a level of insanity, coupled with heavy gin consumption and an enthusiasm for Twinkies. His assistant, Elly, is stuck in a dead marriage, while her husband accuses her of sleeping with Newton. Newton begins to have visions of a Girl, played by the incredible Sophia Anne Caruso, and the story spins out of control from there.
The musical lacks a defined plot, but to its credit, the confusion and attempts to find some piece of sanity in the show reflects the plight of the characters. The beginning hits one like a tackle, the music reverberating in one’s bones, and the bass dictating the heartbeat. Madness overtakes their stories in unique ways, which provides a challenge for the more than competent actors. Representations of love breaks through the madness and connects the characters. Elly and her husband stress about their marriage; a newly engaged, highly attractive couple make out and dance in cute bliss; and Newton struggles with the memory of his now-gone wife. Obsessive, romantic, platonic, and true love swim on stage before the audience, culminating in a tear-inducing rendition of “Heroes” performed by Hall and Caruso at the show’s end.
Hall and Caruso stand out in their performances. The former gives an electrifying delivery from the first crackle of the speakers. He remains present in every single scene, radiating with the confidence that lets the audience forget it is watching actors on a stage.
The best role in the show was the Girl, a character clad in a cream-colored dress that blended in with the rest of the set. Imaginary or real (up for debate), she attempts to save Newton from Earth and send him back to Mars, his apparent home. None of the other characters can see her, but her relationship with Newton acts as a backbone for the show. From the moment Caruso walks on stage, eyes become entranced by her presence. She has a small body, looks younger than she is (15 years old), and shakes the theatre with the power of her voice. This beautiful voice becomes painfully, movingly evident when she sings “Life on Mars?” Hall lies on a tape outline of a rocket ship the Girl made, while Caruso presses her hand into his heart, desperation and determination playing on her face as the song builds. She and Hall deserve credit for the rapport they develop on stage.
The tech played its perfect part in the show, as well, earning its place alongside the actors, never overshadowing them or taking away from the story. In the middle of the stage sat a TV screen that stretched from floor to ceiling. The production used it as a way to reflect the actions on stage, display the chaos in Newton’s mind, and enhance the drama of particular scenes. Two particular moments that stood out involved Valentine, a homicidal character who wrecks havoc on the others. Once, he kills someone while the latter is against the screen, and blood spreads across the pixels from the man’s body, sliding down as he does, dead. Then in “Valentine’s Day,” black ink starts spilling over the screen and onto the walls, consuming the beige that had dominated before. Everything goes dark, and Valentine remains front and center, hands bloody.
Lazarus succeeds in pulling off a challenging task: weaving classic songs with heavy emotional attachment for many into a cohesive theme and storyline. While it is difficult to identify the individual plot points, the story still carries the audience through brief moments in the lives of the characters, and no one disappoints in their performances of Bowie’s songs. A LAMDA student who attended the production said that Hall sounded so similar to Bowie that it gave her chills. Another song that gave life and soul to its soloist was “Changes,” Elly’s chance to communicate her inner turmoil. Amy Lennox’s voice rocked with vulnerability as her character invited in the insanity of life.
Every character had their place, each piece of technology augmented the story, and each note of music reverberated in the audience’s hearts. Those who went to see Lazarus will not forget it for a long time.