Lazarus (The Production Company) – theatre review

An inspired production involving top talent, slick staging and creative costumes, David Bowie’s fantasy Lazarus – his final project before his death in 2016 – is a revelation. Entering the Playhouse at Arts Centre Melbourne, I had no idea what to expect. Sure, I admired Bowie’s musical prowess, but I would hardly say I was his number one fan. Elton John and Billy Joel are more my style. Regardless, nothing could prepare me for the eye-popping ride to which we were treated. Wow!

Photo: Jeff Busby

Lazarus features 18 Bowie tracks, including four created just for this show. He wrote the narrative with Irish playwright Enda Walsh. Many of the songs I hadn’t heard before (signature numbers such as “Changes” and “Heroes” excluded), but it didn’t matter because the tunes and the way they were performed immediately won me over. The story hardly follows a conventional arc. Hey, we are talking about a man whose mind worked differently to most. In fact, often you are left scratching your head, but still you understand the gist.

An alien is trapped on Earth and misses his one true love and their two children, a son and daughter. The musical was inspired by Walter Tevis’ 1963 novel The Man Who Fell to Earth. Bowie starred in the 1976 film adaptation directed by Nicolas Roeg.

Among an excellent cast of 11, the leads in this production – which also features a seven-strong The Production Company orchestra – are dynamic and assured. Chris Ryan (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder) has a compelling voice and is charisma personified, channelling angst as extra-terrestrial Thomas Newton. Thomas’ mind is shot. He barely exists (think of an adult in a foetal position and you get an idea of what is going on here). He is unable to extricate himself from an invidious predicament. Holed up, he swills gin constantly and eats Twinkies. Thomas is immediately besotted with his new assistant Elly (Phoebe Panaretos), a young woman in an unhappy marriage. Panaretos’ passion is evident throughout and her rendition of “Changes” is electrifying.

Photo: Jeff Busby

Emily Milledge (The House of Bernarda Alba) fills the role of an ingénue who promises to help Thomas realise his dream, someone who gives him hope. That hope eventually comes in the form of a complete cardboard and tape rocket ship. Milledge has an astoundingly rich and beautiful voice. I just longed to hear her sing. And then there is the stage presence and vocal proclivity of iOTA, who plays platinum blonde mass murderer Valentine. He all but steals the show pulling faces and strutting about as the two-faced villain.

In 21 triumphant seasons, Lazarus is undoubtedly The Production Company’s most audacious and risky venture. Directed by Michael Kantor, with musical direction and soundscape design by Jethro Woodward and choreography by Stephanie Lake, this is the first Australian production of the show. All concerned deserve hearty congratulations because they have pulled it off in fine style. So much so, I’d see it again tomorrow.

Lazarus is on at the Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne until 9 June 2019.

Alex First

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