Performances raise up Bowie’s Lazarus

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Published: 23rd May, 2019
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This production is a multi-faceted theatrical experience, very immediate and relatable on many levels. The story was developed as a sequel to The Man Who Fell to Earth, the 1976 film which starred David Bowie as Thomas Newton. In Lazarus, we see what has become of Newton. He’s gone on to be very successful and wealthy, but now he spends his days full of despair and guilt at leaving his family behind on his home planet. Lying in bed, numbing himself with gin, he is visited by characters some of whom are real but may or may not actually be there, and some who definitely exist only in his tortured mind. Chris Ryan as Newton gives a mighty performance both physically and vocally. It’s a very intense role and in 95 minutes, he leaves the stage only once for a costume change.

As a counterpoint to Newton, the character of Girl is created to show him that there is hope…he could actually leave here and go home. To this end, she helps him build a rocket. It turns out that she’s really a lost soul, a ghost who needs to be killed by him so she can go home too. The role is realised with tenderness and pathos by Emily Milledge. Her performance is compelling and ethereal all at once. Her rendition of “Life on Mars”, in this context, was one of the highlights of the show.

Newton’s personal assistant, Elly, is in love with him and wants to save him. She’ll do almost anything; leave her husband and even try to be Newton’s beloved Mary-Lou to get his attention. This role is played beautifully by Phoebe Panaretos whose magnificent voice brings a new listening to songs like “Changes” and “Always Crashing in the Same Car”. Newton’s manager, Michael, played by Mike McLeish, tries to stop him from drowning in his alcoholism and self-indulgence, but is conveniently assassinated by Newton’s inner demon Valentine, murderously played by iOTA. This is a marvellous creation with great costumes and iOTA plays the role with great swagger. In his big number “Valentine’s Day”, he’s dressed in a twisted version of the Harlequin costume which David Bowie wears in the film clip of Ashes to Ashes. This character bumps off all those who get in the way by giving hope and friendship to Newton. When he thrusts his knife, great balloons full of scarlet glitter explode into the air.

There are some great production numbers like “Absolute Beginners”, “Dirty Boys” and “All the Fine Young Dudes”, which show off the ensemble cast’s dancing chops with thrilling choreography by Stephanie Lake. It was a delight to see that performers who were great actors had terrific moves and great vocals too. Stand-outs were Mat Verevis as Zach, Kaori Maeda-Judge as Maemi and Josh Gates as Ben. Full credit goes to director Michael Kantor in staging this very ambitious musical with its many technical complexities. The entire ensemble was so well-rehearsed, the singing and dancing so assured, it seemed like a well-seasoned show already.

You don’t have to be a big Bowie fan to enjoy Lazarus. There are plenty of well-known Bowie songs, which when placed into this storyline, take on a whole new meaning. You don’t need to have any prior knowledge to enjoy this production. This isn’t typical fare for The Production Company, but full marks to them for presenting something new, different and challenging. It opens them up to a wider audience and extends the theatrical consciousness of their existing audience.

Much of the story is supported by film and projections which accompany the on-stage action. The film by Natasha Pincus and projections by Nick Roux create a visual interpretation for Bowie’s iconic songs as inspired by the new context of this show. They are shown on 10 massive screens which form a back-drop, but also act as mirrors, screens and windows. It’s an ingenious design by Anna Cordingley and when the screens are transparent, they reveal action upstage and the wonderful onstage eight-piece band led by Jethro Woodard sitting high above the stage. The lighting is very important in this piece since there is a minimal set and lighting is used to define spaces, states of mind, and passages of time. Paul Jackson has designed a wonderful atmosphere which changes either seamlessly or violently as the action dictates. I especially liked the almost endless cascade of mirror balls in the closing number.

When the performance first started, I wasn’t sure how to take it. I’m sure there were others in the audience who wondered what they’d come along to. It is a rather cerebral story, set mainly in a tortured man’s mind. But after a few minutes and some well-known songs, we were caught up in the thread and invested ourselves in Newton’s story. This show has wonderful production values, a tremendous cast and outstanding music and choreography. The audience seemed to love the show. Experiencing Lazarus was a real treat because it’s something we rarely get to see in Australia. Thankfully, The Production Company had the courage to include it in this year’s season.

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Jon Jackson reviewed LAZARUS at the Arts Centre Melbourne Playhouse.  The show runs through Jun 9.