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'Lazarus': Bowie's grand farewell

Ika Krismantari

The Jakarta Post

London  /  Fri, January 6, 2017  /  02:20 pm
'Lazarus': Bowie's grand farewell

On fire: The characters are busy in their own worlds in one of the scenes (Facebook.com/lazarusmusical/Johan Persson)

The night was still young in London, but people crowded King’s Cross Theatre despite the freezing temperature in November. It had been almost a month since the musical Lazarus had opened in London, but people’s enthusiasm remained high to see the last piece of work from musician David Bowie before he passed away last year.

The line in front of the ticket box was packed, as was the line entering the theater building. Once inside, it was no surprise to see so many theatergoers waiting devotedly for Lazarus to begin.

The tickets were sold out for that night’s performance and no empty seats were seen.

Before the London showing, Lazarus premiered in New York in December 2015. It has since received a mixed review from theater enthusiasts. The Guardian called it “a spectacular Bowie fantasy”, while Rolling Stone magazine praised it as “wild, fantastical, eye-popping, a surrealist tour de force”. However no few have criticized it, including The Times, which described the play as “pretentious rubbish” and “nonsense on stilts”.

(Read also: David Bowie and his love affair with Indonesia)

The show is a collaboration between Bowie and Irish playwright Enda Walsh. It is based on a 1963 science fiction novel, The Man Who Fell to Earth, written by American author Walter Tevis. The novel tells the story of a humanoid alien named Thomas Jerome Newton, who comes to Earth to ship water to his drought-ridden home planet.

The novel was adapted into a movie in 1976 by director Nicolas Roeg, in which Bowie played Newton.

Initiated by Bowie to explore further the character of Newton, the musical is a sequel to the movie.

Set 40 years later, Newton (Michael C. Hall) is still trapped on Earth and hasn’t aged a day. He is a rich man, living a life of alcoholic seclusion in a New York apartment, still yearning for home but still unable to move on from his lost love, Mary Lou. The plot becomes complex and somewhat bewildering with the appearance of three new characters. There is Girl (Sophia Anne Caruso), who may or may not be real and the antithesis of a Girl; a mass murderer called Valentine (Michael Esper), as well as Elly (Amy Lennox), Newton’s assistant, who is obsessed with replacing Mary Lou.

Directed by Belgian theater director Ivo van Hove, the musical features 17 Bowie songs, which are played live by a band standing inside a see-through panel serving as a backdrop to the stage.

Watching the musical, it almost feels like attending another Bowie concert with all his hits being played and sung by the characters, including “Lazarus” from his last album Blackstar.

All the songs have been picked to represent the characters’ emotional state. Elly sings the 1971 song “Changes” when she transforms into blue-haired Mary Lou. The most notable one is “Heroes” sung by Newton and Girl to a dramatic end.

(Read also: Review: Bowie's last album fitting epitaph)

Yet, don’t expect to a simple plot. It is all pretty confusing and involves multiple interpretations yet is intriguing at the same time, like most of Bowie’s video clips.

Despite only involving one setting; the performance is quite complicated with the real and the unreal colliding on stage.

Despite the complex and twisted plot, a grand narrative on death is pretty evident throughout the play. Bowie wrote the script before his death and through Newton’s character, topics on immortality, loneliness, grief and love appear on the stage. This can be sensed in the choice of colors — red, beige, white and black — that dominate the stage.

Hats off to Hall, who is known from the famous TV series Dexter. The actor manages to deliver a spectacular performance as Newton from the first minute. He eerily looks like Bowie with his gestures and voice. It was as if Bowie had been resurrected on stage that night.

Another notable performance comes from Caruso as Girl. She is able to capture the essence of the surrealist character wonderfully with her angellike voice and swift moves around the stage.

The stage management is pretty efficient. The screen in the middle of the stage is a brilliant idea to expand dialogues between the characters with all seemingly interacting with it. The audience can also glimpse Bowie on that screen, as if he had never left the stage.

There has been no farewell from the great musician. Bowie appeared in the Lazarus world premiere in New York on Dec. 7, 2015. A month and a day later, he released his 25th album and suddenly died two days later. It is as if the maestro prepared everything before his final departure, except a good bye.

So, there has been no closure from him. Yet, watching the play, Bowie fans should be able to read the signs from their idol. Like Newton, who in one scene blasts off into the space with his imaginary spaceship, leaving Earth for eternity, that’s probably the way the singer wants to be remembered.

There was no good bye from Bowie, if there had been one then this play would have been a grand farewell to celebrate the loss of a great star.