As it turned out, the announcement of David Bowie's death in the second week of January was an omen for the year to come as it has been a litany of unhappy news ever since. But Bowie has haunted 2016 and as it started with the release of his album BLACKSTAR, it ends with the London premiere of his musical LAZARUS which he completed shortly before his death. Indeed Bowie's appearance at the show's premiere in New York was the last time he was seen in public.
It would have been wonderful to say that LAZARUS is a perfect end to a dazzling career but, while the show is brimming with creative ideas and the Bowie songs are obviously sparkling with his genius - as is fast becoming a mantra on this blog when discussing musicals - without a sturdy book any show will just be a collection of disparate moments, and playwright Enda Walsh's book is frustratingly opaque and never far from being annoying.
LAZARUS is a sequel to THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, both the original Walter Tevis novel and the Nicolas Roeg film, in which Bowie played the tailor-made lead role. Thomas Jerome Newton is an alien who has come to Earth from his arid planet to use his advanced technical knowledge to raise the money for his own space programme so he can return home with water to save his planet. However Newton has reckoned without the evil ways of Mankind and his plan is frustrated, leaving him stranded on earth, rich beyond measure but alone and lost to alcoholism.
LAZARUS raises Newton to continue his story; now isolated in an anonymous apartment building the alien boozes his time away waiting for the release of death while various under-written characters float in and around the action: a psychopath stalking the clubs of NY, Newton's assistant who is almost possessed by Newton's long-gone love Mary-Lou and an ethereal child-woman who knows more about Newton than he understands.
It is so maddeningly elusive that after a while I thought "okay you don't want me to get involved with these characters? Fine I won't" so checked out and watched the pretty video projections on the otherwise ghastly beige anonymous apartment set.
US TV star Michael C Hall played Newton with some level of intensity but, given nothing to do then wander around the stage, he soon wore out his welcome. Fellow American actor Michael Esper had a bit more to do as the murderous Valentine, but as soon as the character announced his name I was literally counting down the minutes until the appearance of the song "Valentine's Day". Boy did it take it's time too.
I had more trouble with Sophia Anne Caruso as the blonde Girl and Amy Lennox as the schizophrenic Elly. The latter goes into full drunk slut-mode within minutes and the young girl finally reveals that she is the spirit of a dead girl who is hanging about to die properly before Newton can get the release he needs. All the time these characters were on stage it was hard to overlook Enda Walsh's ghastly misogynist writing of these two characters. It certainly wasted both actress' talents.
Bowie's score sounded excellent under the musical direction of Tom Cawley and the onstage band - trapped behind glass like a recording studio - sounded fine; the sax was played by James Knight who was Kirsty MacColl's partner. But although it was nice to hear the Bowie songs played live, that did not stop the clash of hearing songs like MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD, HEROES, LIFE ON MARS and ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS shoe-horned into Walsh's naff book. They are too unique to be 'book' songs with too many personal resonances to fit in a musical. You can do that kind of stuff with the songs of Abba in MAMMA MIA... but Bowie? Nope.
Ivo van Hove's production certainly never felt dull thanks to the video projections of Tal Yarden and the contribution of van Hove's lighting designer partner Jan Versweyveld but when the music and the lighting stopped and the speaking started... yeesh. It was telling that the biggest ovation at the curtain call was when a large picture of Bowie filled the stage, his giving the audience an "I'll be seeing you" gesture being probably all we needed to see after all...