Let’s start here: Jukebox musicals can be delightful. Fans celebrating legendary musicians, new choreographies set to old rhythms, strange stories told with familiar lyrics. Unfortunately, Lazarus, a new musical by the surprising collaborative trio of David Bowie, playwright Enda Walsh, and director Ivo van Hove, now playing at New York Theatre Workshop, is not this kind of jukebox musical. And the thing is, it might be better if it were.
Lazarus takes its premise from the 1963 novel The Man Who Fell to Earth and the subsequent film, in which Bowie starred as a sexy extraterrestrial who ventures to Earth seeking water for his home planet and ends up stuck here. With this new piece, Bowie was inspired to stage a sequel of sorts. Walsh’s script, set after the earlier tale’s ending, includes copious contributions from Bowie’s greatest-hits catalog, plus some new songs written for the occasion. And van Hove stages the whole thing with his trademark slick, ultramodern panache.
These potentially fascinating elements add up to far less than the sum of their parts. The plot — which will be murky even for fans of the source material — takes roughly the following shape: Newton (Michael C. Hall), the Bowie alter ego, mourns his terrestrial captivity as well as his devastating love-affair-gone-wrong with a slinky, blue-haired former assistant named Mary Lou. He passes his days subsisting on gin, aided by a new assistant (Cristin Milioti) — who might be possessed by the spirit of Mary Lou or might just be having a marital crisis and wearing a blue wig — and conversing with emanations of his addled mind who issue forth periodically from behind a giant screen center stage to expound on impenetrable subjects, burst into Bowie-song, and, occasionally, stab each other.
These imaginary friends include, among others, three painfully hip backup singers and an adolescent blonde (Sophia Anne Caruso) who claims she’s here to help Newton build a spaceship and fly back home. (Side note: This benevolent teen is also probably dead, and Alan Cumming makes an inexplicable cameo as her killer.) You’ll recognize many of the songs accompanying this bizarreness — “Changes,” “This Is Not America,” “Life on Mars,” all accompanied by a dimly lit band behind tinted glass — but that does not mean you’ll enjoy them.
Van Hove, in collaboration with longtime designer Jan Versweyveld, puts Newton in a shiny, anonymous luxury apartment in shades of taupe, sparsely furnished with a bed and a blaringly white fridge stocked with identical bottles of gin. But although the two are masters of stage imagery — and van Hove is renowned for revelatory stage interpretations of both drama and film — this piece doesn’t give director, designers, or cast much to interpret. There’s too little comprehensible story, too little at stake. Much of the imagery here feels pushy and gratuitous: a vigorous stabbing with crimson puddles spreading across a giant screen; a stage crammed with black balloons; and, especially, the female performers’ constant baring of bras and writhing around in satiny Victoria’s Secret–style lingerie.
All the oddness might be worth your patience if it created the kind of truly hallucinatory strangeness you’d think a David Bowie musical would muster. In this case, though, better to stay home wondering if there’s life on Mars than come to the theater and find out there isn’t.
By David Bowie and Enda Walsh
New York Theatre Workshop
79 East 4th Street