King’s Cross Theatre, London 26/10/16
Bowie’s off-Broadway musical begins its run in the UK
It was never going to be a straight-forward thing, reviewing what would be one of Bowie’s final creative statements on this planet. Clouded by a multitude of conflicting emotions, that of a deep love of Bowie and a skeptical appreciation of the stage-musical art form, I bathed in the autumnal sunshine afforded to us on this Wednesday afternoon, waiting to enter the semi-permanent space erected recently adjacent to King’s Cross station in the site of what will eventually be Google’s new London office space. The rejuvenation of the area is nothing short of spectacular and what once was home to a side of London best avoided, is now clean, open, airy and altogether rather pleasant. Some might bemoan such gentrification, but the breathing of new life into an area of the capitol that contains the fantastic St. Pancras building and the spectacular gothic revival frontispiece of Gilbert-Scott’s old Midland Grand (now Renaissance) Hotel has been done incredibly well.
Sat opposite the unassuming frontage of the King’s Cross Theatre’s entrance, people watching, the slowly gathering crowd revealed a diverse bunch, all keen to experience Bowie’s first and final foray into musical theatre. There are obvious fans, in their Blackstar tees or lyric-bearing shirts, tourists from around the world, young, old, and in-between. Not your regular theatre crowd, but more of the kind you see pre-gig, all trying to form a very British queue and attempting to “out-fan” each other. Once inside, the merchandise stand is well stocked and well-attended and after a swift glass of red, seats are taken.
The set of Lazarus is sparse. a shallow yet wide stage, a solitary bed and door on the left wall, a refrigerator on the right. To the rear, two large, clear perspex panels representing the windows of Newton’s apartment separate the live band from the main stage and in the middle, between these two panels, is a large screen, placed vertically, and nonchalantly as a focal point. It is at this point, I notice a figure, on-stage, at the left “window”, looking out over the painted New York skyline behind the band. At first, I am convinced it is a mannequin, so still it stands there. But after a few minutes, the figure, who turns out to be Michael C. Hall hinself, moves and wanders across the stage. This wandering continues as the venue fills and finally, he comes to rest, laying on a blanket, centre stage, staring at the ceiling. As the lights dim, Hall jumps up and slams into the screen, which springs to life with a multitude of broken images, flashbacks and static, including flickers of Bowie’s own performance as Newton in the original film on which Lazarus is based.
I say based, but it is more accurate to describe Lazarus as an extension rather than a sequel or reinterpretation of the original book by Walter Tevis. Newton resides in his East Village residence, seemingly living the minimalistic lifestyle, soaked in gin and still trapped on Earth. The small cast is introduced fairly quickly as we begin to establish the why’s and wherefores of the story, the details of which I will spare you, not wishing to spoil the story or plot. Rather than being one of those musical’s that rely heavily on the songs to move the story forward, it is the dialogue between characters that provides the motion, with the songs simply used to express emotion or supply some subtle meaning to the unfolding plot. With virtually all the music pulled from Bowie’s extensive catalogue, this method of story-telling seems the only way, but it does force the audience to question whether these songs were written with a connecting story in mind, like he always had the character of Newton in his mind when composing, hoping that one day he might be able to string them altogether as a single body of work. Certain lyrics have been changed, to better fit the tale, but lyrical tinkering is kept to a minimum, with the music being the area where most variation takes place. Some numbers seem to have benefitted from the free-jazz influence of Blackstar, others remain reasonably faithful to the originals, but none fall into the schmalzy Broadway show-style that would’ve made ones toes curl. Hall is a fantastic singer, as is Sophia Anne Caruso who has a strong, emotional vocal style. Her renditions of ‘Life on Mars’ and ‘This Is Not America’ are spine-tingling. Hall’s song-sheet includes title track ‘Lazarus’, as well as ‘Absolute Beginners’, ‘Killing A Little Time’ and ‘Where Are We Now?’, the latter being a hugely powerful performance in its own right and a stand-out moment.
The rest of the cast also live up to the high standards laid down by Hall and Caruso, in all aspects, particularly with Amy Lennox, one of the new cast members to this London production, who plays Elly, Newton’s assistant. The sparse set means that the audience’s focus is truly directed at these performances and the giant TV screen plays an integral part throughout, almost worthy of a cast listing itself. The use of projections, both on the screen and beyond, is inspired and not overdone, the way a producer might revel in playing with a new toy. Their use is truly effective in conveying the inner workings of Newton’s mind throughout the piece and they are combined well with the physical props on stage. This is most apparent in the performance’s final act, a simple yet hugely effective use of both the physical and virtual effects that builds towards the emotional conclusion.
There is, however, one aspect of the production that still has me a tad baffled. As previously mentioned, the King’s Cross Theatre is made up of three spaces, the middle which is a temporary, semi-permanent construction. A bit like those marquee’s you see at hotels that have solid UPVC and glass walls and a thick canvas roof. Except bigger. This is Lazarus’s home throughout it’s run into January 2017. As I took my seat, above the mumble of fellow audience members, I could hear a backdrop of urban life. I wasn’t initially sure if this was the sound of London outside or whether it was, in fact, an ambient soundtrack of New York, playing through the PA to support the location of the performance. It soon became clear that it was indeed the hubbub of the theatre’s exterior, made painfully obvious when a police helicopter started doing the rounds above the King’s Cross district. Initially, I felt this was a glaring oversight by the producers when selecting their venue, but then, actually wondered if this had been a deliberate decision to enable the provision of an authentic ambience. Given the theatre’s close proximity to the rail station as well as a typically congested London thoroughfare, there was always going to be this sonic encroachment, so one cannot imagine that the producers of the UK run were not aware of this.
Lazarus is most definitely “off-Broadway” in every sense of the word. It is too conceptual for the glitz, glamour and spoon-fed fodder that one typically finds in the West End. That’s not to say it is inaccessible, and even those who aren’t particularly fussed about Bowie will enjoy this. However, it does require the audience to have some small inkling of what the original story is about, be it the novel or the movie, simply to allow the acceptance of the main character and understand the prevailing mindset that is the core of the story here. If either of those is too much, a read through of a well written synopsis should suffice. Do not expect songs that drive plot line’s and story arcs. They simply punctuate emotion and sentiment. This is not Rodgers & Hammerstein or Stephen Sondheim. This is a more oblique form of musical theatre that causes the viewer to think, contemplate and interpret their own understanding of what Thomas Jerome Newton is experiencing and who and why the other characters exist.
You will leave the King’s Cross Theatre with more questions than answers, as well as a new found appreciation for some of Bowie’s lesser known tunes. Walsh’s script is clever, witty, dark and intelligent without being patronising or too clever for its own good. Performances are strong and compelling and the live band are effective and unobtrusive, despite being in full view at all times.
Lazarus is not for everyone and will divide dyed-in-the-wool fans of the late icon as much as it will make new ones of those who may have seen him in a lesser light previously. But if you’re looking for a cerebral experience of the stage musical kind, look no further.
Lazarus’ 13 week season runs from October 25th 2016 to January 22nd 2017, at the King’s Cross Theatre, King’s Boulevard, London, with both matinee and evening performances. The original cast recording is now available on CD, Vinyl and digital download on RCA Records, and features three previously unreleased David Bowie recordings from the ‘Blackstar’ sessions.