Joan of Arc: Into the Fire
David Byrne pens a new musical set in medieval France.
No fewer than 20 times, the performers in Joan of Arc: Into the Fire at the Public Theater implore us to, "Have faith, be strong." Faith we have, especially in the creative team of writer-composer David Byrne and director Alex Timbers. They are the brains behind the hit immersive musical Here Lies Love (also at the Public), which had audiences working up a sweat with former first lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos. Sadly, Joan of Arc cannot fill those shoes, making this refrain seem like a warning: We have faith that this will be a great musical, but we have to be strong to stay through the end.
Almost entirely sung-through, Joan of Arc tells the story of Joan (Jo Lampert), the legendary Maid of Orléans who led the French army into battle against the occupying English, turning the tide of the Hundred Years' War. Visions of Saint Michel and Saint Catherine lead this poor, illiterate teenager to the court of the Dauphin (Kyle Selig), where her precocious knowledge and clarity of purpose convince him to give her command of his army. A stunning series of victories makes her loathed and feared in the English camp. Her claim to be a messenger of God opens her to accusations of heresy from Bishop Cauchon (Sean Allan Krill), the man who will lead her eventual trial.
Byrne (formerly of the Talking Heads) is credited with book, music, and lyrics for this ambitious but ultimately disappointing project, that probably would have benefited from a few more workshops before this world premiere. He leans on near rhyme throughout, matching "burn" with "world," "change" with "vain," and "day" with "afraid" in Joan's first number alone ("me" with "me" is one of the few exceptions). If the precision of these words added to the specificity of the story, this would be understandable, but we're only given the vaguest sense of Joan's visions, betraying a laziness in the lyricism. The melodies are similarly uninspired, bleeding together in a keyboard and electric guitar casserole.
Timbers (who helmed Rocky on Broadway) applies his caffeinated style to the story with the help of choreographer Steven Hoggett: Joan races through a cinematic training montage; the ensemble rapidly switches between playing French and English soldiers during aerobic battle scenes; a wide staircase (somewhat reminiscent of the barricade in Les Misérables) rotates upstage, concealing and revealing the band throughout (dynamic scenic design by Christopher Barreca). Unfortunately, none of it can compensate for the subpar material undergirding it all: Filled with unmemorable pop ditties buttressed by vocal pyrotechnics and flashy stagecraft, Joan of Arc begins to feel like an overly long medieval-themed entry in the Eurovision Song Contest.
Not that Timbers shies away from this aesthetic. Costume designer Clint Ramos bridges a six century spread with his glamtastic costumes: Cool urban chainmail, plate armor fit for Michael Jackson, and a coronation robe that looks like it was stolen from Lady Gaga. Darrel Maloney's projections (beaming out key plot points where the script has failed) and Justin Townsend's concert lighting (Joan's visions most often appear in pink LED) assault our senses in a barrage of color and light.
All of this would feel justified if it added anything to the story. Here Lies Love explored Imelda Marcos with irreverence and frivolity, helping us to better understand the woman and her motivations. Unfortunately, Joan of Arc maintains an almost religious seriousness, keeping the traditional Catholic mythology of Joan intact. It's the kind of rock-infused martyr's tale that could only be truly enjoyed by Tommy Gnosis — before he met Hedwig.
This makes Lampert's job particularly difficult. She is tasked with playing an icon, rather than a real woman. Lampert (whose dark, androgynous looks make her a dead ringer for Joan) brings incredible charisma and an awesome set of pipes to the stage, but it all seems wasted on a role that never asks for more than a one-note portrayal of self-sacrifice.
Perhaps sensing that audiences would have trouble connecting to the story of a teenage religious zealot, the creative team has scrawled a quote from Senator Mitch McConnell regarding Senator Elizabeth Warren on the pre-show curtain: "She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted." It feels like a flimsy way to tie Joan of Arc to our present time, one that glosses over some important differences: Elizabeth Warren raised millions of dollars in campaign funds for her persistence. Joan was burned at the stake.