Wednesday, May 22, 2019

A slick and stunning music video sci-fi fantasy of sorts, David Bowie's Lazarus gets an excellent Australian premiere

Chris Ryan as Newton and Phoebe Panaretos as Elly
If there’s one music album I recall that I let try suppress my sense of belonging, it was David Bowie’s 1973 studio album, “Pin Ups”. I was an 11 year-old, old enough to understand its unconventionality, not mature enough to give it any thought and kept on the outer by older siblings and their friends who ooh-aahed over the album and hogged the stereo.

Of course, brawn, brains and confidence were measuring themselves up as well to see how best they could ward off any attempts to ruin a sense of belonging. Growing up had its battles. And so does adulthood as David Bowie (music) and Enda Marsh (storybook) present in Lazarus, one of Bowie’s last works before his death on 10 January 2016. The work's Australian premiere, excellently presented by The Production Company of Melbourne and EY in association with Mene Mene Theatre, must have felt like a eternal wait for Bowie fans.

Inspired by the novel The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis and which Bowie later appeared as the story’s protagonist Thomas Newton in the subsequent film adaptation of 1976, Lazarus premiered in December 2015 when Bowie was stricken with liver cancer. In the program notes, director Michael Kantor (former Artistic Director of Malthouse Theatre) describes Lazarus as “...a story about love. And sex. And loss. And death. And hope. And what is after death”. But, amongst all those battles and interconnecting those short sentences, Bowie also homes in on a sense of longing to belong, somewhere, where little, not even happiness, is what it seems.

Chris Ryan as Newton and Emily Milledge as Girl
Alien from a distant universe, Newton is trapped on earth, missing his sweet Mary Lou and falling victim to psychological stress, displacement, isolation and alcoholism. What plays out is the harrowing experience of a man whose fractured psyche and perspective is pumped out in an oft-pitiable portrayal. Despite not always being easy figuring out what’s in Newton’s mind and what’s his reality, the 90 minute experience certainly has its rewards and strengths. You might even, like myself, begin to believe that the whole alien backstory might itself be a hallucinatory part of Newton’s psychotic disturbance.

Like Bowie’s continual and unique journey of reinvention, Lazarus is unconventional as a musical. Kantor and his creative team - set and costume design by Anna Cordingley, lighting by Paul Jackson and choreography by Stephanie Lake - present it as something of a music video sci-fi fantasy. It’s a slick and stunning staging that cleverly divides the stage into front and rear - sometimes alluding to the real and imagined - via an element of modern architecture’s curtain wall that becomes a reflective screen for a range of visual stimuli projecting their kaleidoscopic concoctions in powerful form.

Journeying from strength to strength in the lead role, Chris Ryan was a knockout affecting presence. Both forceful and lyrical, Ryan’s immediate attachment to and interpretation of the music easily convinced from the start. Often seen writhing on the bed or the floor in pyjamas surrounded by his bottled fuel, Ryan portrayed Newton’s pathos to heartbreaking limits before he is finally suited in a dreamy atmosphere of hope and salvation. Among his music, Ryan made phenomenal work of and a strapping, soul-searching “Killing a Little Time”, one of three songs held back and redone for the Lazarus soundtrack, in a runaway highlight as glass shatters around him.

Chris Ryan as Lazarus and Teenage Girls
It’s part of 17 songs that span Bowie’s career, including “The Man Who Sold the World", released in 1970, and "Changes", a year later. Singing them, Ryan is joined by a strong surrounding cast that includes  Emily Milledge in glassy and radiant voice as Girl, a cute figure who knows more about Newton than she does of herself and comes into his mind offering hope. New Zealand-Australian singer iOTA brings creepy eccentricity and plasticity to the role of Valentine as he lurks about before stabbing happiness in the back and Phoebe Panaretos throws everything, as well as a rich and resonant sound, at her obsession with Newton as his working assistant Elly. At Tuesday's opening night the finale came with the most successful harmonies of the night from the ensemble in a soaring rendition of "Heroes" and, keeping the music pulsating with glowing clarity and a little sentimental charm, musical director and soundscape designer Jethro Woodward and his band provide impressive support from a raised platform back of stage.

I had my reservations at the start and the show sags momentarily in the second half but you don’t have to be a Bowie fan to be won over by the mystique Lazarus brings. It’s ironic that all those years ago when I thought I couldn’t belong, decades later I sense in Lazarus that Bowie was dealing with it too. We all are. And perhaps we just need to get on with it without turning against ourselves.

The Production Company
Playhouse Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Until 9th June

Production Photos: Jeff Busby