Musical theater songs and rock songs are totally different animals, worshipped by very different and partisan tribes. Theater songs have a very different purpose and function differently from rock numbers, therefore plonking a back catalogue of rock hits, no matter how iconic, into a jukebox show can be fatal. Rock purists may recoil at musical theater styling but likewise rock songs never really satisfy as theater songs. If shoehorned into a lazy, biographical, narrative, as is often the case, the result can be a sort of tired karaoke.
One never expected the master of reinvention David Bowie to follow this path and of course he hasn’t. Instead, collaborating with edgy Irish playwright Enda Walsh and Belgian avant-garde director Ivo van Hove, he has fashioned an unconventional musical theater project, jammed full of his hits, which breaks new ground. While his songs are abstract jewels in themselves, many do display a theatrical flamboyance which makes them an interesting fit for the stage. The aesthetic here though is more modern European opera than Shaftesbury Ave and the piece has a swagger and an emotional punch which commands attention.
It started life last year at the New York Theater Workshop and three of the original cast have come over including Michael C Hall, best known for Dexter and Six Feet Under and here looking astonishingly youthful and revealing a powerhouse voice. He cleverly channels Bowie but never imitates him. Henry Hey’s orchestrations and the vocal performances throughout are spellbindingly good, especially from the elfin belter Sophia Anne Caruso. The show demonstrates you can blend rock and musical theater in a way which shouldn’t really alienate either tribe.
Based on the Walter Tevis’ novel and the Nic Roeg’s cult, trippy, movie The Man Who Fell to Earth, the story centres on Thomas Jerome Newton (Hall), a humanoid alien who came to Earth from his drought-stricken planet many years earlier. After amassing a fortune in business while attempting to build a rocket ship to take him home, he was experimented on by the government and now lives in depressed isolation in a lonely penthouse, getting by on a diet of gin, Twinkies and television and pining for a long lost love, Mary-Lou. Unable to leave and unable to die it’s a scenario Beckett would have relished. Hall’s achievement is in making us connect with this frazzled, insomniac and alcoholic extra-terrestrial.
Three new characters have been added around the alien, who either help of hinder him: an angelic Girl (Caruso) who may or may not be real; a mass murderer called Valentine (Michael Esper) and Elly, a faithful assistant. Amy Lennox succeeds in making Elly much more than the good woman who redeems the hero with her love.
Jan Versweyveld’s arresting designs are intrinsic to all van Hove’s work. The band, central to a piece celebrating rock, are sequestered behind plexiglass overlooking this eerie beige penthouse. Tal Yarden’s video designs too, ingenuously integrate video elements which overlap and merge with the live action and help create great hallucinatory effects. Whether it’s a sea of black balloons or watersliding on milk, the design team here could be channelling Pina Bausch at her most inventive.
Some may quibble that the songs don’t provide a clear narrative line but anyone familiar with Walsh’s oeuvre will know that narrative isn’t his bag. He did weave a hit musical out of Once and here, again, this piece succeeds because of its daring and the sheer skill in its execution.
It is staged in a dedicated, very welcome and very comfortable new pop-up space next to King’s Cross station.