Saturday, 18 February 2017

David Byrne's JOAN OF ARC INTO THE FIRE at the Public

     Like many others, I raved about David Byrne's HERE LIES LOVE, a techno-opera about Imelda Marcos. The music was terrific and Alex Timbers' immersive production was thrilling. It is interesting to note that when friends recall HERE LIES LOVE, they talk about the production, not the score. JOAN OF ARC INTO THE FIRE is nowhere near as strong musically and the production is more pageant than storytelling.
     As I watched the production I thought about Stephen Sondheim's notion of a "Why" musical. Why turn the story of Joan of Arc into a rock musical? Did Byrne have any idea he wanted to share about Joan's life, so brilliantly dramatized in George Bernard Shaw's SAINT JOAN? The show curtain offers a spurious quote from Margaret Mead to the effect that great social changes are caused by one person. Byrne seems interested in women who are historical figures--Imelda, Joan--but he doesn't make clear why. Any version of Joan has to explain how this girl was able to win over soldiers and princes-- as Shaw's play does so brilliantly. Byrne's musical just recounts facts. I know why Andrew Lloyd Webber was fasciated by Eva Peron. He loves divas. I'm not sure why Byrne wrote a musical about Joan. I mention EVITA because there are similarities between the two shows. An historical female at the center and a male narrator on the sidelines. The difference is EVITA is fun and JOAN OF ARC is deadpan solemn. EVITA without the camp.
     There's too much narrative here and not much character. The lyrics are truly awful, worse than the lyrics to most of Lloyd Webber's musicals and that's going some. They're filled with one syllable words and forced rhymes. My husband rightly called them "doggerel." I associate the Talking Heads with witty lyrics. Don't look for them here. The music isn't Byrne's best. Some good songs, but a lot of it sounded like the same song being repeated.
     As for the production, a black set revolves a lot a la LES MIZ. There's a lot of going up and down stairs. A group of men are backup chorus to Joan and play the supporting characters. There's some macho choreography as Joan learns to be a soldier. Two guitarists are part of the scenery and join in some of the choruses. Jo Lampert gives a terrific performance as Joan. She looks like an androgynous punk rocker, sings well and gets tossed around a lot.
     I saw an early preview and its 100 minutes seemed endless. After Joan has been burnt at the stake and you think you can go home, her mother, who has never appeared before, enters the scene to sing a long, banal, totally unnecessary song. Why??
     Finally, hasn't the historical figure as rock star thing been done at least six times too often? As they sing in SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, a great show about an historical figure, "Move on!"

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