A few minutes into Lazarus, the world premiere David Bowie musical currently enjoying a sold-out run at New York Theatre Workshop, Michael C. Hall simply stands there eating a bowl of cereal. This moment perfectly captures both the odd, surreal series of images that, loosely strung together, comprise this bizarre, dream-like show, and also why I paid as much money as I did to see it. As I mentioned to my friend afterwards, I would buy a ticket to watch Michael C. Hall eat cereal even if he wasn’t going to sing. He is one of my favorite actors and the primary reason I chose this production as one of only four shows I had time to see in New York this year. It is probably good that I felt this way because, despite strong performances and music, Lazarus is a rather disjointed piece of theater that leaves you wondering, at the end of its two intermissionless hours, “what did I just watch?”
Lazarus is apparently a sequel to The Man Who Fell to Earth, a 1976 movie adaptation of a novel by Walter Tevis in which David Bowie plays Thomas Newton, the character played here by Hall. Working with playwright Edna Walsh (Once) and director Ivo van Hove (the current Broadway revival of A View from the Bridge), Bowie composed a few new songs specifically for this production in addition to creating new arrangements of songs from his existing discography. The reason I say this is “apparently” a sequel is because I, perhaps foolishly, did not watch the movie nor read the book beforehand. I would like to think this lack of knowledge partially contributed to my near-constant confusion, although I suspect even those with an inside-out knowledge of the source material would have been perplexed at times.
Here is my best attempt at a plot summary: Thomas Newton is an alien who has been trapped on Earth for some time after a failed mission to retrieve water for his struggling home planet. During his early years on Earth, prior to the beginning of the musical, he meets and falls in love with a free-spirited woman named Mary-Lou. The relationship goes south, and he becomes an alcoholic recluse. This is the state in which we join Newton in the musical. His only real interactions are with his troubled assistant, Elly (Cristin Milioti), until one day when a mysterious girl (Sophia Anne Caruso) appears. While Newton understands that the girl is likely a figment of his increasingly fractured psyche, she provides him with hope he hasn’t felt in a long time by promising to help him return to his home planet. There are also several convoluted subplots—the real reason the girl was sent to Newton is slowly revealed, Elly fights with her husband (Bobby Moreno) over her increasingly obvious attraction to Newton, and a character named Valentine (Michael Esper) who may or may not be a version of Satan causes trouble with a trio of mysterious girls I interpreted to be his minions (Krystina Alabado, Krista Pioppi, and Brynn Williams).
In many ways, Lazarus feels like a series of highly visual, abstract vignettes that seem closer to music videos or a fever dream than scenes in a musical. The production makes excellent use of video and projections to allow the small, minimalist set to come to life, and I can still vividly picture several moments that would make rather impressive production stills. A series of cool images, however, does not a cohesive musical make. The plot is thin at best, incoherent at worst, and I am still unclear as to just how much of the action took place only in Mr. Newton’s head.
That being said, Bowie’s music, which drew most of the audience to this production, did not disappoint. From the brand new title number to classics such as “Changes,” “Absolute Beginners,” and “The Man Who Sold the World,” the music was expertly performed by the cast—particularly by Mr. Hall, vocally a perfect fit. As a fan of Esper from American Idiot, I was pleased by how much he had to do—even if I understood little of it. His performance was sinister and eccentrically funny at once. Milioti was magnetic as her character slowly unraveled, but, aside from Hall, the standout of the cast was young Ms. Caruso, whom I was so impressed with I immediately flipped to her bio in the playbill at the end of the show. In addition to a striking voice, she completely held her own in her many scenes with Hall, delivering a poignant and powerful performance. This is surely not the last the New York theater scene will see of her.
While I exited the theater feeling rather confused, Lazarus was certainly not an unpleasant experience—there is a lot to like, just not a lot that ties it all together into a cohesive piece. While this production has extended multiple times and become the fastest selling show in the history of New York Theatre Workshop, it is hard to imagine a musical this abstract having a commercial life beyond this run. After all, watching an enigmatic extraterrestrial eat cereal is not for everyone.
Lazarus runs through January 20th. While regular tickets are sold out for the remainder of the run, you can enter a daily digital lottery to win $25 tickets via the TodayTix app.