Bowie Songs, Old and New, Power ‘Lazarus' at NYTW

David Bowie contributed new music -- and tweaked old arrangements -- for the world premiere of “Lazarus,” now at New York Theatre Workshop. Music notwithstanding, the fanciful and hard to follow production from avant garde Belgian director Ivo van Hove (“A View From the Bridge”) screams the techno glam rocker’s name: digital effects are abundant, often serving as an extension to the bodies of actors on stage.

“Lazarus,” which has become the hottest ticket in the NYTW’s 36-year-history, is “inspired” by the 1963 Walter Tevis novel “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” Bowie starred in Nicolas Roeg’s visionary film adaptation of the book, about an alien trying to rescue his people from a drought, though the story told here isn’t parallel to its predecessors.

This time, it’s “Dexter” and “Hedwig” star Michael C. Hall as Newton, the gin-swilling extraterrestrial, stranded on Earth and obsessed with a lost lover. Hall, in a set of neutral pajamas, lies prone on stage, even as audience members assemble to take their seats.

Cristin Milioti (NYTW’s “Once”) is Elly, a troubled assistant to Newton, prone to blue wigs and moping. One of the musical’s more accessible sequences has the stiletto-clad femme fatale enthusiastically running the stage to Bowie’s “Changes.” Sophie Anne Caruso (“The Nether”), a doppelgänger for the petite Milioti, is also here, as a sprite-like figure representing something like hope -- you know what happens to hope around these parts, don’t you?

LPs for “Scary Monsters,” “Aladdin Sane” and “Young Americans” lean against a bare wall adjacent to a turntable on the floor. This barren and monochromatic space has a bed and refrigerator, but the dominant feature is the massive digital screen upstage center. Throughout “Lazarus,” characters interact with images there, though the special effects at times extend onto every surface (including windows separating the actors from members of a band).

We can have the “live” Hall writhing in his bed, while video of the actor frantically rifling through a drawer of women’s lingerie is imposed behind him. Another supercharged electronic moment has Michael Esper’s sinister Valentine (“You built a rocket … ‘cause that’s what rich guys do, right?”) standing still astride the monitor while darkness expands from the screen, until the entire stage is shrouded.

Esper, recently seen in Sting’s “The Last Ship” and continuing a string of rock star collaborations here, has a storyline that’s largely removed from the rest of the characters. Alan Cumming appears in an utterly surreal video segment.

Like its source material, the two-hour affair, co-written with “Once” playwright Enda Walsh, raises issues of identity and alienation. We’re never sure if a character is real or in Newton’s mind. We just know he’d rather be anywhere than here. You’re strongly advised to be familiar with the bare outlines of Tevis’ story beforehand. “Lazarus” is eye-catching and mystifying -- I wish it explained itself more -- but certainly never boring.

“Lazarus,” through Jan. 20, 2016, at New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St. Tickets: $95-$129. Call 212-460-5475.

Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn

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