'Here Lies Love': Theater Review
David Byrne's award-winning mixtape musical about disco-loving dictator's wife Imelda Marcos makes the leap from New York to London, with more transfers to follow
Here in Britain, we like to think of polymath pop professor David Byrne as one of our greatest gifts to America. You're welcome. This week, the favor has finally been returned as Byrne's dazzling disco musical Here Lies Love transfers to London after two wildly successful, award-winning Off-Broadway runs at New York's Public Theater.
Byrne was in London making minor tweaks during previews last week, but this is essentially the same Alex Timbers-directed production that is still running in New York. Nothing has been lost in translation. Clearly a moveable feast, Here Lies Love is an inspired remix of stage musical conventions that balances immersive audience interaction with great technical skill. Tickets for the limited National Theatre run are already scarce, with a Sydney production lined up for next year, suggesting Byrne's sumptuous dance-pop spectacle could yet become a global franchise.
Charting the rise and fall of Imelda Marcos, disco-loving shoe-fetishist wife of former Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Here Lies Love wears its Evita parallels lightly. Byrne and his collaborator Norman Cook — aka British club DJ and dance music superstar Fatboy Slim — spent almost a decade stewarding this project from concept album to live song cycle to full-blooded "poperetta." Their perseverance paid off with one of the most unique and uplifting events ever to grace a National Theatre stage. This ain't no party, this ain't no disco, more like a glitzy mirrorball pageant where high-tech production meets high-camp showmanship.
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The London cast are mostly Brits and Australians of Southeast Asian heritage. Natalie Mendoza, whose past credits include a truncated stint in ill-fated Broadway flop Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, gives a charismatic and lusty turn as Imelda herself, singing and dancing and scheming her way from impoverished small-town beauty queen to Jackie Kennedy-style first lady of the Philippines.
Cramming around 40 years into 90 minutes, the fast-moving story is inevitably a little light on detail. It plays out as as a bizarre love triangle between Imelda, her flashy presidential husband Ferdinand (Mark Bautista) and Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino Jr. (Dean John-Wilson), the former boyfriend who later became a bitter political rival. Aquino's 1983 assassination was widely blamed on the Marcos regime, though the link was never proved.
Here Lies Love has no real libretto aside from a handful of spoken-word interjections by a club DJ (Martin Sarreal), who opens the show with a lively turntable set and serves as an occasional chorus figure throughout. Otherwise Byrne tells the story entirely in song lyrics, a form with a long tradition, but which is difficult to do with subtlety and texture. Byrne is not exactly Stephen Sondheim, sketching his episodic narrative in broad strokes and lyrics often borrowed wholesale from Imelda's delightfully diva-ish public statements.
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The score is bookended by full-cast versions of the title track, which takes its name from Imelda’s fabulously immodest Dame Edna-style suggestion for her own epitaph. If that rousing chorus sounds familiar, try playing it back to back with Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline. Other stand-out numbers include "When She Passed By," a heartbroken rejection ballad by Imelda's former childhood friend and guardian Estrella Cumpas (Gia Macuja Atchison), and the stern "Order 1081," possibly the finest song ever written about the declaration of martial law.
Otherwise disco, funk and tropical dance grooves dominate, with more emphasis on momentum than memorable melodies. There are clear echoes of Byrne's Talking Heads and solo work here, as well as Cook's genius for catchy rhythms, but nothing that rivals their most beloved pop anthems. While you are unlikely to leave Here Lies Love whistling many of these tunes, they serve their purpose in maintaining a steady, throbbing, hedonistic beat.
Director Timbers deserves equal credit with Byrne for opening up an album into an innovative hybrid stage event in which audience members mingle directly with cast on the dancefloor of a virtual nightclub. The real star of the show is this versatile 360-degree set by David Korins. It has stages and screens along every wall, plus a revolving catwalk in the center. At various points in the story these platforms double up as beaches, airport runways, prison cells, apartments and parliament buildings before eventually morphing into a tiered bank of seats for Aquino's funeral scene. Extremely impressive.
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Here Lies Love is hugely good fun, leaving no time to get bored in its all-singing, all-dancing, breathlessly rushed running time. But it inevitably favors surface spectacle over dramatic depth, offering surprisingly few psychological insights into its main character, and scant historical context on the Philippines. In promotional interviews for the project, Byrne draws parallels between the intoxicating glamor of both dance music and political power, noting how politicians often sell themselves like pop stars. A little extra running time and one or two more conventionally descriptive numbers might have helped turn all this rich subtext into text.
The optimistic ending, in which the so-called "People Power Revolution" of guitar-strumming Occupy-style beatniks topples the Marcos regime and sweeps Aquino’s widow Corazon "Corey" Aquino into power, also feels a little too neat. In a bizarre real-life postscript, Imelda later returned from exile and remains an elected member of the Filipino Congress today, at the majestic age of 85. The current president is Benigno Aquino III, son of the man whose shadowy murder will forever taint the Marcos name. This party is not over yet, but Here Lies Love is an audaciously enjoyable mixtape of the story so far.
Oh what a circus, oh what a show.
Cast: Natalie Mendoza, Gia Macuja Atchison, Dean John-Wilson, Mark Bautista, Martin Sarreal
Director: Alex Timbers
Concept and lyrics: David Byrne
Music: David Byrne, Fatboy Slim
Additional music: Tom Gandey, José Luis Pardo
Set designer: David Korins
Costume designer: Clint Ramos
Lighting designer: Justin Townsend
Sound designers: M.L. Dogg, Cody Spencer
Projection designer: Peter Nigrini
Choreographer: Annie-B Parsons
Music supervisor: Kimberly Grigsby
UK Music Director: Theo Jamieson
Fight director: Kate Waters
Presented by the Public Theater