Joan of Arc – Into the Fire continues at The Public Theater, New York until 16 April.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Composer/writer David Byrne (along with collaborator Fatboy Slim) and director Alex Timbers scored a massive hit for Off-Broadway’s The Public Theater in 2013 with Here Lies Love, depicting the life of the infamous former first lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos, in an immersive disco setting.
Now Byrne and Timber have turned to a world-changing 15th Century martyr for a heroine. And in Joan of Arc – Into the Fire, they have given the French saint a conventional proscenium setting, telling her story in a mode that’s straightforward, serious and irony-free.
At the same time, they have transformed the familiar and perpetually pertinent tale of indomitable faith battling oppressive power into an eye-filling, ear-filling rock musical. The production is a dazzling spectacle of stagecraft wizardry.
In the centre of it all is a heroic performance in the title role by Jo Lampert, whose resumé includes Fringe productions and back-up singing with rock bands plus DJ and production work.
From the moment that her Joan is prompted by heavenly voices to lead her country out from under the occupying English, and she steps out of her peasant garb and into increasingly masculine and militaristic garb, she owns the stage. Her liquid rock voice easily negotiates the soaring and dipping lines of Byrne’s melodies, lyrics riding clearly over the frequently percussive orchestrations excitingly rendered by the show’s six musicians.
In battle, she is a lithe, androgynous figure unswerving and alive with magnetic fury. “Have faith, be strong,” is one of her battle cries. Once captured by the British and tried by the church as a heretic, she is a compelling soul caught up in alternating despair and defiance.
Timber’s staging, abetted by a creative team working at what appears to be the zenith of inspiration and technical knowhow, is equally impressive.
The ten men in the company are grouped and regrouped, defining opposing forces, the movement heightened by the choreography of Steven Hoggett, who has worked with Timbers before on such shows as the under-appreciated Rocky The Musical. His work here further adds to the impact of such set pieces as Joan’s training for battle under the tutelage of her mentor Captain Baudricourt (a robust Michael James Shaw) and her brutal physical examination before her trial.
Additionally, the shape-shifting set designs by Christopher Barreca, the chiaroscuro lighting by Justin Townsend, the special effects and projections by Jeremy Chernick and Darrel Maloney, respectively, along with the costumes of Clint Ramos, fire up our imaginations, letting us see bleak French battlefields, the majestic cathedral at Rheims, and the conflagration that in the end consumes Joan.
On a more practical note, the scope of the production is indicated on The Public’s website, advising potential ticket-buyers that the show ‘contains the use of fog, haze, open flame, strobe effects, and rock concert level noise’.
Be assured, however, that Byrne’s score has its quieter moments. One of those comes in the contemplative solo sung by Bishop Cauchon, movingly played by Sean Allan Krill, as he questions the legitimacy of Joan’s trial. You may even hear a faint echo of one of the softer moments from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar.
Another comes in the final scene, some 25 years after Joan’s death, when her mother (a sweetly persuasive Mare Winningham) comes before church officials, seeking a new trial and redemption for her daughter. “Send her to heaven. That’s where she belongs,” she sings, her words eventually taken up by the churchmen in a triumphant finale.
Byrne’s work may not tell us anything new about Joan of Arc, but it reaffirms in epic theatrical style the fascination she has held over centuries for cultures both sacred and secular.
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Come from Away – Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, New York – Review