Here Lies Love
Ever want to dance with the wife of a dictator? Have I got a show for you!
Ask anyone whose been to the Cyndi Lauper scored "Kinky Boots" or the ABBA perennial mega hit "Mamma Mia!" and they’ll tell you that the show’s pop-fueled scores had them literally on their feet dancing at the finale. The only problem with dancing in a theater is how those pesky seats get in the way.
Exit those superfluous theater seats. Enter wunderkind director Alex Timbers ("Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson", "Peter and the Starcatcher"). Mix in a pulsing score by Talking Heads frontman David Byrne and DJ/Producer Fatboy Slim, and you have "Here Lies Love," the thrilling, immersive, 360 degree disco pop opera experience based on the life of Imelda Marcos that reopened Thursday at The Public.
At the onset of "Here Lies Love," we meet anti-hero Imelda, an impoverished girl from the Philippine provinces whose looks wins her a local beauty pageant and the affections of two men who would go on to play key roles in the country’s post war political arena.
Jilted by the first (Ninoy Aquino), she enters into a whirlwind romance and ends up marrying the second, Ferdinand Marcos, a war hero and populist political figure destined to rule the country. The two become a power couple and form a conjugal dictatorship, living a jet-setting lavish life while looting the population already living in poverty.
As Imelda, Ruthie Ann Miles offers a complex portrayal of a woman so self-deluded by her own version of good intentions, that she becomes blind to pain she inflicts not only on the masses, but also those she purports to have loved.
Like a racist grandmother, for as awful as Imelda is, the audience never despises her as much as they gasp at the irony of someone living in a bubble devoid of morality. Her eleven o’clock number "Why Don’t You Love Me?" (which is more of a demand than a question) actually induces laughs from an audience as if to answer "where do we start, bitch?"
With matinee idol looks and charm to spare, Jose Llana’s Marcos cuts a dashing figure and is a perfect match for Imelda’s evil beauty. As he literally mills around the audience in the march-like ballad "A Perfect Hand" shaking hands as "one of the people," it’s easy as an audience participant to see the flash of his smile and twinkle in his eye to want to vote for this guy, only to end up regretting it.
As Ninoy Aquino, Conrad Ricamora’s arc takes us from the innocence of a political idealist in the a boy band-like number "Child of the Philippines" with his impassioned revolutionary inciting the audience to chant "give our people a break!" to his cry to "Rise Up!" in "Fabulous One." His return after exile to the Philippines and imminent assassination in "Gate 37" is a lesson in nobility.
Balancing out the larger-than-life political characters of the piece is a triple threat ensemble that includes Melody Butiu in a heartbreaking performance as Estrella, Imelda’s childhood friend who essentially raised her only to be excluded attending her wedding before being bribed to just shut up and go away.
As Aquino’s mother, Natalie Cortez’s eulogy of her slain son in "Just Ask Flowers" provides the emotional highpoint of the show. As the raucous DJ host of the evening, Kelvin Moon Loh deftly bookends the show with the energy of a line dancing lesson at its onset, wrapping it up with the healing acoustic "God Draws Straight" as the evening’s quiet but stirring denouement.
The through-composed evening is scored by pop icons FatBoy Slim and David Byrne -- who was inspired to write the piece as a disco opera after discovering that Marcos’ penchant for disco lead her not only to install a mirror ball in her Manhattan townhouse, but to covert the roof of the presidential palace in Manilla into a dance club.
Suitably, the score pulses with a series of butt shaking pop tunes, dance anthems and "you done me wrong" songs. As the audience is on its feet throughout the evening, dancing is not only inevitable, but guaranteed thanks to the tunesmanship of the show’s creators.
Comparisons between "Here Lies Love" and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s "Evita" are easy to draw. Both musicals involve populist political figures and revolutionaries. On a purely dramatic structural line, Imelda, Aquino and Marcos could easily be swapped out for Eva, Che and Peron respectively. Throw in the fact that both musicals are the only tuners in this critic’s memory to feature military states under martial law and they’re almost identical. Almost, but not quite.
The true genius of Timbers’ staging is how the audience members literally become characters in the play. Like flies on the wall we hear Marcos’ sex audio tape with a twenty-year-old mistress and see a desperate Imelda popping pills in a bathroom stall at Studio 54. As viewer participants at the shows numerous musicalized political rallies, at one moment we’re cheering Marcos on in his election for president and at the next moment supporters at a rally of his political rival Aquino.
Timbers’ 360 degree moveable ride culminates with a brilliant bit of audience wrangling at the end where we end up mourners at the assassinated Aquino’s funeral. The constant shifting of political lines throughout the narrative by creators Byrne, Slim and Timbers, ensure that, place on the political spectrum aside, the Filipino people are and their enduring spirit are truly the ones worth rooting for.
Talk of commercial transfers to Broadway are always immediately brought up by producers and fans alike whenever there is a critically success Off-Broadway or in regional non-profit theaters, causing everyone to speculate as to the when’s, where’s and what awards will be reaped. No such show in recent memory has generated as much excitement and transfer buzz, as "Here Lies Love."
From its world premiere last year at the Public, rumors of which uptown venue would play host to a show which could easily have swept the Tony’s this year, ran the gamut from Circle in the Square to the ballroom at the Hotel Pennsylvania. And although the accolades of a Broadway success are always nice for producers and artists, why mess with success? The return of this show to its original digs on Lafayette Street feels right.
With a running time of 90 minutes, my advice is to wear comfortable shoes and be prepared to dance.
"Here Lies Love," runs through June 21 at The Public Theater’s LuEsther Hall, 425 Lafayette St. For tickets or information, call 212-967-7555 or visit www.herelieslove.com.