A sequel of sorts to The Man Who Fell to Earth, the novel that became a film starring David Bowie as a stranded alien, Lazarus was one of the final projects for the great shape-shifting singer-songwriter. He gathered 17 of his songs for this musical, which is as enigmatic as his often impressionistic lyrics. A disjointed, dream-like tale about a character who claims to be an extraterrestrial longing to return home, but could simply be a delirious dying man, it may leave audiences feeling alienated despite the familiarity of several songs and this production’s striking visuals.

Chris Ryan and Phoebe Panaretos. Photograph © Jeff Busby

The central character of Lazarus is that man who fell to Earth, Newton. Fabulously rich but suffering from profound ennui, he lives on gin and Twinkies surrounded by assistants in his New York apartment. New assistant Elly falls for Newton and tries to transform herself into his lost love. Another character simply called Girl also tries to help, including by building a rocket that will take him home, but she may be the creation of his fevered mind. Another mysterious figure, Valentine, who seems to be a serial killer, flits in and out of this meandering plot-of-sorts, which also features everything from cheerleaders to manga-inspired Japanese girls.

The cast work hard to find some footing on the shifting ground of Enda Walsh’s book, but have more success with Bowie’s songs, which do little to illuminate the story but are rich with mood and emotion – and ultimately that is probably what Lazarus is about. Phoebe Panaretos delivered opening night’s highlight, her expressive, dusky voice drawing out the anxiety and melancholy of a pared-back arrangement of Changes.

As Newton, Chris Ryan brought a strong voice, with a hint of Bowie inflections and tone, to solos such as the jittery, yearning title song, which was released as a single shortly before Bowie’s death. In the role of Girl, Emily Milledge turned Life on Mars into a song of plaintive beauty, while iOTA, whether singing or not, exuded psychopathic danger as Valentine. This character is modelled on Bowie’s Thin White Duke persona, but toward the end iOTA inexplicably appeared in the glam Pierrot style of the Ashes to Ashes music video. Was he still playing Valentine? Just one of many questions that Lazarus raises but never answers during its 90-minute existential ramble.

Chris Ryan, Phoebe Panaretos and iOTA. Photograph © Jeff Busby

It’s a pleasure to hear Bowie’s songs, both familiar and obscure, performed live. The bold, driving bass and searing guitar solos of the eight-piece band led by Jethro Woodward booms from behind a wall of screens that are sometimes transparent, sometimes glowing with mesmerising imagery created by Natasha Pincus. Myriad close-ups of eyes. A falling figure with no face. Burlesque dancers. Shattered glass tumbling in slow-motion. Glorious snapshots of the cosmos. These and countless other beautiful, bewildering images demand that we, as Bowie sang, “turn and face the strange.”

This bank of screens is almost the sum total of Anna Cordingley’s set. Even when not in cinema mode it’s often used to striking effect in other ways: as an evocative background of opaque colour blocks, or fully or partially transparent, revealing scenes played out behind. In any mode it’s brilliant, both in concept and execution, and is an innovative production element remarkably different to The Production Company’s usually very traditional even subdued approach.

That the company has programmed Lazarus is in itself a significant and adventurous swerve, as their business is usually classic, easily digested musicals such as the forthcoming Thoroughly Modern Millie. Hats off to The Production Company and director Michael Kantor for tackling this challenging work, and delivering musically and visually. In the end, however, it’s difficult to find satisfaction in Lazarus’ impressionistic, enigmatic concept, which would probably work better as cinema.

Lazarus runs at the Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne, until June 9


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