“Joan of Arc,” now at The Public Theater, seems to start with aspirations to be another “Hamilton,” but by the end, it’s more of a missed opportunity. I had higher hopes for the world premiere rock musical by David Byrne, directed by his “Here Lies Love” collaborator Alex Timbers.
This time, the duo deliver a linear retelling of the brief life of the famous 15th century French heroine, who would eventually be sainted. Byrne’s sung-through score is occasionally anthemic, with touches of Christian rock. It’s generically upbeat and, at the same time, frequently overwrought.
The silver lining here is Jo Lampert, as the beautifully androgynous title character. Timbers has also hired a dozen men as the self-serving French and Anglo figures who impacted Joan’s life. The scruffy gaggle of them, in Clint Ramos’s leather, chain metal and vinyl-esque robes, lend a regrettably campy vibe to the affair.
But let’s back up.
“Joan of Arc” begins with a promise before the actors ever appear. On a flame-orange curtain are scrawled the words of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, having shut down testimony by Elizabeth Warren during the Jeff Sessions nomination hearings: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
Makes you think you’re heading in one obvious direction, right? Well, you’re not.
Given the overtly political statement, I hoped that Byrne and Timbers were poised to construct a parallel between current events in America, and what happened to Joan, who tried to keep her loyalties to France, but was knocked down by the patriarchy of her time.
This seems like the right era for a musical about an independent woman asserting her place in the universe, never mind one who has inspired modern pop culture figures from Madonna to Arcade Fire. But this Joan isn’t the leader of women and men—she’s simply a leader among men, who are going to devour her.
There isn’t ever enough connective tissue between Byrne’s songs to make us care about the girl. There is no clear hero in the muddled antics of the French and the English, who cornily spin the poor teenager around like a pinwheel, trying to determine whether she is still “intact,” because only a virgin could claim to be god’s messenger.
That may hew toward the historically accurate, but in a production that establishes its tone off a controversial quote from a United States senator, the focus on men doesn’t wash. Joan is frequently asked by her tormentors: “Are you a boy? … Is it a girl?” I’m not sure that counts as the feminist bent I’d been counting on.
The messages repeated in Byrne’s lyrics are “Have faith. Be strong,” but they could just as well have replaced Joan with Gavroche, from “Les Miserables,” and accomplished the same thing.
Ramos’s costumes are interesting, especially the chain mail items designed for Lampert. His men, notably the duplicitous dauphin (Kyle Selig) and untrustworthy Bishop Cauchon (a bland Sean Allan Krill), too often look like conceptually attired extras from the cast of HBO’s “The Young Pope.”
In the end, what does it take to refocus “Joan of Arc”? An appearance by the only other woman in the cast, Mare Winningham, as Joan’s mother, who arrives in the final moments, 24 years after Joan’s death, delivering a touching plea for mercy for her child.
Why do we care about France or England, nations whose versions of “right” and “wrong” were so relative in this epoch? Why do we care that Joan claims to be doing God's work? Maybe these questions can be answered as “Joan of Arc” evolves, but for now, we just don’t have enough invested in her well-being to care.
“Joan of Arc,” through April 30 at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St. Tickets: Starting at $90. Call 212-967-7555.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn