Reviews - Lazarus, Invisible Thread & These Paper Bullets

Three new musicals run the gamut of quality

What follows are my final three reviews of 2015. These are all Off-Broadway musicals, and represent an unusually wide range of successful artistry. I've listed them below from worst to best. 

Invisible Thread

The cast of Invisible Thread
The cast of Invisible Thread. Monica Simoes

I missed Invisible Thread when it was at the American Repertory Theater under the title Witness UgandaAnd now I wish I had missed it altogether. What a self-important, self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing (are you sensing a theme here?) load of solipsistic hooey. Real-life partners Griffin Matthews and Matt Gould have created what is essentially a paean to themselves, and there hasn't been this much self-love on a New York stage since Motown - The Musical. (Unless, of course, you count a certain scene in Spring Awakening...) Matthews and Gould seem to think their experience helping out a group of orphans in Uganda somehow qualifies them for musical-theater beatification, but their myopic treatment takes the profound and renders it petty. It's not clear why the Second Stage Theatre would be interested in this show, other than the Uganda angle and the presence of director Diane Paulus, who has alas demonstrated herself to be all too fallible. (Finding Neverland = Ugh) The music feels like warmed-over Rent mixed with some Fela overtones. The lyrics are replete with forced rhymes (pairing "survive/get by" and "open/broken") and irritating platitudes ("The worst kind of warfare is the war where you break someone's heart.") The Griffin character (he plays himself, you see...) keeps saying how much he's into musical theater. Why, then, can't he and his boyfriend write songs that actually tell the story? The very real danger of being homosexual in Uganda is reduced here to broad, dishy humor and a few portentous rumblings that lead nowhere. And what the authors clearly meant to be the big reveal is one of the biggest dramatic letdowns in recent memory, a real waah-waah moment that is supposed to be cathartic, but actually robs the show of any profound weight. 


Sophia Anne Caruso and Michael C. Hall in Lazarus
Sophia Anne Caruso and Michael C. Hall in Lazarus. Jan Versweyveld

More irritation, but presented in a much hipper package. The musical Lazarus, currently playing at the New York Theater Workshop, sold out its entire run in a matter of minutes, mostly due to the presence of David Bowie on the creative staff. Lazarus features a mixture of classic Bowie songs (including “Changes,” “Absolute Beginners,” and “The Man Who Sold the World”), as well as a few new songs created for the show. The inscrutable book is by Enda Walsh (of Once fame), and the show is directed within an inch of its pretentious life by Ivo van Hove. Lazarus represents a follow-up of sorts to the 1963 novel The Man Who Fell to Earthwhich served as the basis for the 1976 film of the same name. Despite the show's artistic pretensions, it basically amounts to a jukebox musical, and yet the fact that the lyrics don't really match the story is really beside the point, because the story itself is rather abstruse: something about an alien who is somehow caught on earth and his struggle for...redemption? Return? Release? I really couldn't conclusively say, nor do I particularly care. What's more, the events as depicted are thoroughly unpleasant. Sure, musicals can be challenging, even tragic, but Lazarus crosses the line and becomes an ordeal. Among the only joys to be had here lie in watching the fantastic cast -- including Michael C. HallMichael Esper & Cristin Milioti -- try to make some hay out of the material. So, if you weren't able to score a ticket, try chewing on some tinfoil. You'll have about as good a time as I did. 

These Paper Bullets

Nicole Parker and James Barry in These Paper Bullets
Nicole Parker and James Barry in These Paper Bullets. Aaron R. Foster

Whereas the previous two shows wrote artistically ambitious checks that their productions failed to cash, These Paper Bullets comes much closer to hitting pay dirt. The show is essentially a play with music in the form of delightful pastiche songs by Billy Joe Armstrong. These Paper Bullets attempts to update Much Ado About Nothing, setting the action in 1964 London, with a cast of characters strongly reminiscent of a certain popular British quartet from the '60s. The show hits considerably more than it misses, with the results feeling like Shakespeare filtered through Help! and Monty Python. The show is written in blank verse, with the occasional rhyming couplet, and even if playwright Rolin Jones isn't quite Shakespeare, he nonetheless has a puckish sense of wordplay and a knack for crafting a comedic scene. The show goes on for about 30 minutes longer than it needs to, but the proceedings are nonetheless engaging, sweet, and dramatically satisfying. The production is tightly staged by director Jackson Gay, and features a near-flawless ensemble, including Nicole Parker, who is nothing less than outstanding in the Beatrice role, Justin Kirk as a louche yet amorous Ben, Bryan Fenkart as a strong-voiced and sympathetic Claude, and the always delightful Stephen DeRosa as an alternatingly convivial and vengeful Messina.