Jo Lampert and Michael James Shaw. Photo: Joan Marcus
Written by Michael Dale
Who is she? Where did she come from?
These are questions likely to pass through the minds of Off-Broadway's regular attendees while witnessing Jo Lampert's stellar performance as the title character of David Byrne's new musical, Joan of Arc: Into the Fire.
Her bio tells us that Lampert is "a BK-based performer, producer, and DJ" who "recently toured the world with the band tUnE-yArDs." And while this rock concert telling of how a 15th Century teenager led French armies to victories over occupying English troops is not her first New York theatre outing, The Public Theater production is certainly the first high-profile venture to place her front and center.
Lampert responds with performance that exudes charismatic attitude and toughness as she belts the power ballad driven, indie-tinged score and performs choreographer Steven Hoggett's boxing and martial arts-inspired choreography with jauntiness and passion.
With her lean physique and partially-shaved head, her Joan is a streetwise champion who unflinchingly dedicates herself to the visions she sees and the voices she hears, inspiring her to believe she has been blessed by God with the power to free her people.
But Lampert achieves her knockout performance without enough support from the musical's author. Four years ago, Byrne was lyricist and co-composer of the excellent and innovative HERE LIES LOVE, which told the story of nightlife-loving Imelda Marcos with a score that emulated the pop sounds of a karaoke disco. The characters communicated with appropriately simple, sometimes clichéd lyrics while director Alex Timbers provided staging and visuals that revealed the political corruption and social unrest in the subtext.
With Joan of Arc: Into the Fire, Timbers, serving again as director, works with designers Christopher Barreca (set), Clint Ramos (costumes), Justin Townsend (lights) and Cody Spencer (sound) to execute an exciting production that straddles between contemporary concert and period drama. But this time Byrne's nearly sung-through score is tasked with more sophisticated storytelling, and his lightweight lyrics ("I want to live, not just survive.") too often linger on points, rather than expound on them, and are loaded with false rhymes. ("I saw them burn our village. / I watched the fires burn. / And now it's gone forever. / Our entire world.")
Upon entering, the audience is greeted by a banner quoting Mitch McConnell's words about Elizabeth Warren that have become a feminist battle cry: "She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted." This recent quote was added during previews and seems cheaply co-opted. While Joan was certainly warned, given an explanation and yet persisted, Byrne's presentation of the story doesn't justify the comparisons to modern gender issues.
Although she's put through the (offstage) indignity of having her purity checked with what appears to be a medieval speculum (The belief was that only virgins could hear from God.), Joan is never seen being disrespected due to her gender or in danger of sexual assault. ("No man alive dared to touch her. / This is something far greater than flesh.")
Byrne's focus is on two warring countries who, naturally, each believed God was on their side, but the main British representative, Bishop Cauchon (Sean Allan Krill), is so bland and underwritten that there's little conflict that's of any interest. The text merely narrates the main points of a story most playgoers will enter the theatre knowing.
Michael James Shaw, as the French captain who agrees to train Joan to be a warrior, and Kyle Selig, as the ungrateful dauphin who puts his trust in Joan and then dismisses her after she's won him a kingdom, stand out in the talented ensemble.
The anticlimactic finish presents the only appearance of the fine Mare Winningham (the only other woman in the company) as Joan's mother, singing a soggy plea "Send Her to Heaven," in hopes that the church will reconsider labeling her a heretic. The inexplicable decision to introduce a new character to take the spotlight away from the central one in the musical's closing moments robs the deserving Lampert of a chance to make a final impression.
Hopefully, there'll be brighter theatre spotlights shining on Jo Lampert in the near future.