NEW YORK (AP) — You don't have to be a David Bowie fan or have seen his starring role as a Martian in the 1976 Nicolas Roeg film "The Man Who Fell To Earth" to appreciate the new musical "Lazarus."
But it might help in following the plot of the darkly imaginative production that opened Monday off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop. It's a colorful, avant-garde deconstruction inspired by the 1963 science-fiction novel "The Man Who Fell to Earth" by Walter Tevis.
Bowie and Enda Walsh ("Once") co-wrote the new musical, which features familiar hits from Bowie's long, innovative career as a singer, songwriter and record producer. Direction is by Ivo van Hove, ("A View From The Bridge," ''Hedda Gabler") and the clean, minimal set is designed by van Hove's longtime collaborator, Jan Versweyveld. The plot may be murky, but van Hove's direction is precise, and it's crystal clear that the production is packed with talent.
Michael C. Hall (TV's "Dexter") impressively portrays Major Tom Newton, the Martian long stranded on Earth. Hall often calls to mind fellow baritone Bowie, as he belts out an anguished version of "Lazarus" or his angry rendition of "Killing A Little Time." The onstage band, led by Henry Hey, is simply terrific. While many of the musical numbers feel relevant to the action, Bowie's often-enigmatic lyrics don't enlighten us much about what's going on.
Newton, once a powerful executive, rarely leaves his apartment anymore, instead watching television and drinking gin. He's "always stuck inside this broken mind" as he puts it, watching his memories flicker by on the wall-size TV screen and entertaining visitors both real and hallucinatory.
Cristin Milioti ("Once") blossoms from mousy maid Elly into a sexy waif in tight, glittery dresses while singing "Changes." Milioti is magnetic and powerful, beautifully voicing songs like "Always Crashing in the Same Car," and sharing an energizing duet with Hall on "Absolute Beginners."
Sophia Anne Caruso ("The Nether") is quite affecting as a young girl stuck in limbo who gives new hope to Newton. Childlike in appearance, she brings a mature vocalism to songs like "This Is Not America" and "Life On Mars?" and provides a lovely, bittersweet duet with Hall on the finale, "Heroes."
Michael Esper, bearing an increasingly unctuous smirk, is smoothly unsettling in the role of Valentine, a shadowy individual eagerly assisted by a trio of attractive young harpies. Valentine finally reveals his true self, singing about his own icy heart in "Valentine's Day."
As intensity rises and blood flows, Newton comforts himself by lying on the floor inside a duct-taped, childlike outline of a rocket ship. When Hall and Caruso triumphantly sing "We can be heroes/just for one day," we truly want to believe them. Although this is definitely not a feel-good musical, it's a pleasure to hear some of Bowie's memorable classics so well performed.