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Lazarus in Dutch premiere: it's Valentine's Day!

Before I say anything substantive about Lazarus, Sunday 13 October the musical premiere for people who never go to musicals, a few misunderstandings the world over. First of all, the album Blackstar, which David Bowie released three days before his death on 11 January 2016, is NOT the soundtrack to Lazarus, his musical that came out a month before his death. The album Blackstar is incredibly more. It is the apotheosis of a life, a celebration of limbo, full of death music that celebrates life in a way that reduces Mozart's requiem to a vague death rattle.

So. Enough people pissed off.

Misconception two: Lazarus is also not an autobiographical ego document of David Bowie, largely because his ego - and I mean this extremely positively - was immeasurably larger and more layered than what can be said in one hour and fifty minutes of lyrics and music.

Bucket list

What Lazarus is: a fascinating piece of musical theatre, largely constructed from a playlist that criss-crosses Bowie's oeuvre, and a story that touches on David Bowie's life. Suitable for fans of the first hour, late entrants and those who have never heard of the good man. Shame on the latter, by the way, but those people are out there, and deserve a place under the sun too.

For David Bowie, born Jones, Lazarus was the last thing on his bucket list. HE had done everything in his career, from idiotic children's tunes (The Laughing Gnome) to cult hits like Heroes and mega-sellers like Let's Dance. Films (The Man Who Fell To Earth et al) and theatre (The Elephant Man) had been ticked off, but a musical theatre piece of his own had yet to materialise. It was George Orwell's heirs who saw nothing in the seventies glam-rock icon's plan to make a concertante version of 1984. So that was reduced to a theatrical tour (the first in history) around the album Diamond Dogs in which Bowie can still be seen in a somewhat awkward bondage act with two dancers. Legendary, unique, but not a musical. Brilliant album, by the way.

Four sheets

But now there is Lazarus, a play Bowie handed over to writer Enda Walsh and director Ivo van Hove in four sheets of paper and a playlist. After the New York premiere, which was later heavily overshadowed by the death of the creative genius behind it, it was long suspenseful whether the musical would come to the Netherlands. After all, such a mega-work is too big for our subsidised theatre these days. Not even in terms of budget, but in terms of availability of venues and talent for a playing period longer than two months.

So nice that it could be done at Delamar. Also for Albert Verlinde, who can thus upgrade his reputation as king of flat entertainment a bit.

Bloody nervous

Well: did it work out? Let me say that I was dead nervous beforehand. In fact, I strongly suspect that the stomach cramps I had been suffering from since the Thursday preceding the Dutch premiere were partly caused by those nerves. Cause; I am a Bowie fan. And not without reason. For this staunch atheist, Bowie has had divine status ever since I first met him on a cassette tape from my brother in 1973. A status that also caused me to be totally bewildered, and still in mourning, over Bowie's unexpected death in 2016.

My nerves concerned the two possible outcomes of my visit: that I would find it really completely shitty and the performance would be an eternal stain on my fandom, or that I would find it so good that through my tears I would not take in anything more of what was on offer.

Swelling eye fluid

The latter happened frequently, Sunday, October 13. Logical, you only have to show me the first notes of any Bowie song and I fill up. So when title song Lazarus came on, I was in soft-focus because of swelling eye moisture. Additional cause: Dragan Bakema, the actor I have been following since his early years in Rotterdam, is extremely convincing as Thomas Newton, the main character of Lazarus. And so he can sing Bowie well. Singing as in: interpreting Bowie's lyrics and music with more emphasis on meaning and emotion than on vocal technique. Pretty tricky, when you know Bowie had all three of those things in abundance. There's a Jeroen Willems (god rest his soul) glowing in that boy.

We meet Bakema, aka Newton, as a derailed and immortal alcoholic, surrounded by sidekicks from the present and ghosts from the past. His goal: away from this earthly misery, preferably back to the planet he once fell from, to Earth. Whether that is a real wish, and whether he really is a fallen alien is, the show leaves finely tuned, quite an achievement by writer Enda Walsh.

Juliana Zijlstra

He converses with an angelic girl, and so that girl - Juliana Zijlstra - sings really fan-tas-tically. She does - among other things - Life on Mars (Bowie's version of Sinatra's My Way) in a quirky way that could raise our demigod from his grave. Reason two to go see.

Not everything is good. There are a few accidents, including with cars, and the closing number does make Heroes a very special kind of musical act, but these do not overshadow the otherwise excellent performance.

Rock 'n roll

We owe this partly, and perhaps mainly, to Pieter Embrechts. He is the mass murderer Valentine, a character familiar to fans from the album The Next Day. He does so with a schwung and a presence that gives the performance wings every time he comes on. Old-timers know Embrechts from Utrecht's Paardenkathedraal under phenomenon Dirk Tanghe. He was the Tartuffe late last century who managed to turn the eponymous baroque character into a jesus that surpassed the original. Since then, he appears to have grown.

So it remains that there is no reason for anyone not to go see and listen to Lazarus. Fans will not be disappointed by the solid performance, the curious who do not know Bowie will get a worthy introduction to 's man's oeuvre. Musical fans will learn something about rock 'n roll thanks to Bakema and Embrechts.

So just go and watch.

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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