How do you solve a problem like Joan of Arc? The story of the 15th-century French teenager is almost too interesting: In her brief life, she rose from illiterate farm girl to religious visionary, military leader, political prisoner and martyr. But there was every reason to hope that new wave art-rock eminence David Byrne and director Alex Timbers—who collaborated on 2013’s Here Lies Love—could rise to the challenge of creating a musical about her. So it’s disappointing that Joan of Arc: Into the Fire turns out to be a monumental dud. Plodding, reverent and dramatically inert, it suggests a Jesus Christ Superstar stripped of wit, ambivalence and social commentary. Which is to say: Jesus Christ.
The lean Jo Lampert, who plays Joan, has a robust voice and a compelling androgynous–kick-ass look, accented by Clint Ramos’s transhistorical costumes, but the show gives her nothing to play but uninterrupted self-belief, rendered banally. Although the music is sometimes energetic, the libretto hardly ever lives up to it. Consider the show’s inciting incident, when Joan believes the saints are speaking to her. “There’s somehow a brightness / A great light all around,” she sings. “I can hear their voices / How softly they do sound.” That clunker at least has the virtue of actually rhyming, unlike most of the lyrics (which include such earscrapers as “side”/“alive” and “believed”/“feels”). Despite frequent resorts to blunt narration, the basic storytelling is muddy.
Although Timbers’s production includes some of his signature concert-style attitude—at one point Joan knocks over a mic stand—most of the staging is uncharacteristically square. An opening curtain that quotes Mitch McConnell’s infamous silencing of Elizabeth Warren (“Nevertheless, she persisted”) does not make Joan of Arc seem more relevant; on the contrary, it points up how little the show reaches beyond its own determination to hit the major beats of Joan’s story. Even the heroine’s fiery execution by the Catholic Church, for supposed crimes of heresy and cross-dressing, feels anticlimactic. After 90 minutes of earnest pageantry, nothing is at stake.
Public Theater (Off Broadway). Book, music and lyrics by David Byrne. Directed by Alex Timbers. With Jo Lampert. Running time: 1hr 35mins. No intermission. Through Apr 30.