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REVIEW: LAZARUS. THE DAVID BOWIE & ENDA WALSH MUSICAL

Elly (Phoebe Panaretos) and Valantine (Iota)

Review: Greg Phillips
Photos: Mary Boukouvalas What’s My Scene

The Production Company is to be congratulated for being bold enough to bring David Bowie and Enda Walsh’s production of Lazarus to Australia. Lazarus premiered in New York in late 2015, with a follow-up production in London in 2017, both intentionally played a limited run of shows and received a diverse range of reviews.

The writing of Lazarus was a collaboration between Bowie, Enda Walsh (Once), with a credit to the late Walter Tevis, author of the novel The Man Who Fell To Earth, a text which has a significant influence on the narrative of this musical. It’s been said that Lazarus could even be the book’s sequel.

Lazarus is essentially the tale of Newton (a character revisited from The Man Who Fell To Earth), a man who struggles with life to the point that he seeks to escape, preferably to the stars. The musical ponders many questions … is Newton’s world real? Is he human or alien? Are these merely the thoughts of a man contemplating the end of life? Don’t we all feel a little that way sometimes?

Sewing together a narrative out of a collection of seemingly disparate songs which have never cohabited before was always going to be task for writer Enda Walsh. However these were songs chosen by Bowie himself at the time when he knew he was dealing with a terminal disease, so in his mind perhaps the tunes did have more of a connection than us mere mortals can immediately detect. Maybe through this soundtrack, these were the themes and questions Bowie was pondering while facing his own impending death.

Played admirably by acclaimed actor, singer and writer Chris Ryan, Newton vents his plight throughout the show to an array of interesting characters. In an over-simplification of a very complex story, these include a nameless and possibly imaginary ‘Girl’ (Emily Milledge), Elly, a personal assistant with demons of her own (Phoebe Panaretos), and a super-villain of sorts in Valentine (Iota), a recurring character who inflicts mischievous havoc on those within Newton’s world.

Eighteen Bowie songs are performed throughout the night including a few hits, some relative obscurities, and four songs written for the musical, including the title track Lazarus which also appeared on Bowie’s final album Blackstar. Lazarus was never going to be a greatest hits presentation nor tribute show, these are songs selected to fit the narrative. Some tunes are featured as a whole, others more as interludes used for dramatic effect. Highlights for me included Absolute Beginners, where the cast come together mid-show to inject a shot of dynamics to lift proceedings a notch, Life On Mars performed solo and exquisitely by female lead Emily Milledge, and the breath-taking, show-stopping finale of Heroes sung by Chris Ryan, where the background music blends seamlessly in and out from Lazarus to Heroes. Of course, the encore performance of the cast, front and centre-stage of Absolute Beginners is a buzz too.

If anything, the show’s flaws lay with the dialogue in trying to convey it’s complex themes, a little like The Australian Labor Party trying to sell it’s wide-ranging policies during the recent federal election. On the other hand, Lazarus is visually stunning. The talented production crew are to be commended for their inventive use of sets, lighting and projections. If the words weren’t cutting it, there was always enough happening to keep your eyes intrigued. And how good was the band? Some of Australia’s finest musicians were brought onboard to interpret the pop icon’s music and they did a stellar job. The baritone horn sound (Carlo Barbaro) which was so integral to Bowie’s Blackstar album was ever-present in this production’s atmospheric, sonic mix. Paul White and Michelle Nguyen’s piano and synth work added much poignancy, and any band that features the rhythm section of Craig Newman on bass and Gerry Pantazis on drums is going to be a winner. Marcus Kurban and Jethro Woodward’s guitar parts were smack in the Bowie zone too.

Many exiting the theatre last night were beaming, others less-impressed. It’s the kind of show you really need to see for yourself and make up your own mind, particularly if you’re a Bowie fan. Certainly there is much to enjoy about Lazarus the musical. Like all the great artists, it’s a testament to Bowie that years after his death we are still analysing, dissecting and discussing his work.