The Production Company should be applauded for attempting to broaden their artistic horizons with this risk-taking yet woefully unsuccessful production.
Chris Ryan, Mike McLeish and Emily Milledge in The Production Company's Lazarus at Arts Centre Melbourne. Image: Jeff Busby
The Production Company is a stalwart of the Melbourne music theatre scene. For 21 years they have been presenting musicals at Arts Centre Melbourne, usually programming old fashioned Broadway classics such as Guys and Dolls (2000 and 2014), Oklahoma! (2005 and 2018) and Singin’ in the Rain (2013). The announcement that their first show for 2019 would be the David Bowie musical Lazarus was completely unexpected. What a ballsy move to produce an avant-garde piece co-written by one of the most famous rock musicians that ever lived. How refreshing. How exciting. How un-Production-Company-like. That’s why it’s so heartbreaking to report that unfortunately Lazarus is a swing and a monumental miss.
This semi-sequel to The Man Who Fell to Earth (Bowie starred in the film adaptation in 1976) written by Irish playwright Enda Walsh and The Thin White Duke himself is a perplexing hodgepodge of scenes and songs focussing on immortal alien Newton (Chris Ryan) lying around his expensive New York apartment guzzling gin, screaming at mysterious spectres who may or may not be real while longing for his home planet and his long lost love, Mary-Lou. There is no real story to speak of, but there’s something in all of this mess about Newton wanting to build a rocket to return home and forget his previous life…or something like that.
We meet various characters along the way, all of whom may just be figments of Newton’s fractured imagination. Emily Milledge plays a young girl who is either also an alien or the ghost of a murder victim. Newton’s personal assistant Elly (Phoebe Panaretos) is having marriage problems and begins to fall in love with her boss while slowly morphing into/becoming possessed by Mary-Lou. iOTA plays the mysterious Valentine whose purpose remains elusive and who comes across as an all-singing, all-dancing version of Pennywise the evil clown from It.
One of the (many) problems with Lazarus is that it never fully commits to being an extravagant celebration of Bowie’s music or a serious piece of experimental art theatre. Whether this is the fault of the piece itself or director Michael Kantor’s interpretation never becomes fully clear, but the show ends up feeling like a haphazard mash up of Rocky Horror and a David Lynch film, but without any of the significance of either. More criminally, there is no sense of fun or even entertainment. Lazarus takes itself so seriously that it becomes dull, dour and ultimately boring. There are no dramatic stakes or relatable characters to grasp onto so you find yourself caught in an endurance test. It becomes a chore to sit through.
The score is made up of several Bowie classics, such as ‘Changes’ and ‘Life on Mars,’ along with a couple of more recent compositions, including the title track 'Lazarus,' released just weeks before Bowie's death in 2016. The onstage band sounds great and the new musical arrangements by Henry Hey are interesting, but the songs rarely make sense within the context of what is happening on stage. Much of Bowie’s lyrics are so strange and intangible that they don’t translate well to the musical format. Most of the time these characters start singing for no apparent reason and the words seemingly lack any significant meaning.
There are some strong vocal performances from the supremely talented yet ultimately wasted cast. At the top of the show Mike McLeish does a solid Bowie impersonation with the broody ‘The Man Who Sold the World’; Milledge’s voice is pure and gorgeous throughout, and Panaretos’ uniquely powerful vocal style impresses at times but the songs she is given sit too low in her register to fully succeed. Mat Verevis, another performer with an incredible voice and who was so fantastic as Barry Mann in the recent production of Beautiful, doesn’t even get a song to call his own. Instead he’s relegated to the role of Elly’s whiny husband and pops up every now and then in the ensemble. Lazarus offers none of the cast the opportunity to demonstrate the breadth of their talents. What a waste.
The design of Lazarus is one of the most fully realised of any Production Company show to date; they’ve clearly thrown everything at this ambitious production.
Set designer Anna Cordingley has created a series of large panels that dominate the stage and act alternatively as projection screens, mirrors, and windows. The lighting design (Paul Jackson) and costumes (Cordingley again) are bombastically over-the-top and most of the time it looks as if the cast are standing in the middle of an MTV music video from the 90s. There’s no real depth in the playing space so everything feels forced to the front of the stage.
Natasha Pincus has created the film clips that constantly play over the top of everything and they are just as unsuccessful as all the other elements in this production. Every film school cliché you can think of is here; faceless figures in suits, over-lit peep-show/stripper scenes, time-lapse footage of rotting fruit. The design of this show is interesting for about the first ten minutes then it just becomes like everything else; sound and movement signifying nothing.
Let’s give credit where credit is due; The Production Company should be applauded for taking such a big risk and attempting to broaden their artistic horizons with this production of Lazarus. There is so much incredible talent involved on stage and off that it’s a real head scratcher to figure out what has gone so horribly wrong. Perhaps it was a matter of too many ideas and not enough restraint. That this particular show is such a mess will hopefully not deter the company from programming diverse and challenging music theatre repertoire in the future; just hopefully with a bit more thought and restraint.
1 ½ stars: ★☆
By David Bowie and Enda Walsh
Directed by Michael Kantor
18 May – 9 June 2019
Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne