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NEW YORK — Don’t cry for me, Prada slingbacks? Relax, there are no cheap shoe-hoarder jokes in Here Lies Love. And despite the obvious parallels between the subject of this unconventional musical, former Filipina first lady Imelda Marcos, and Eva Peron — both were power-wielding consorts to elected politicians-turned-autocrats and both lived the glamorous life while their people struggled — this is no imitation Evita, either. Something completely wild, original and irresistible is what it is. Performed without spoken dialogue, this sensory dance club experience actually functions as a compelling biographical deconstruction, surging along to a madly infectious score.
While always intended for the stage, the show was test-driven as a double-disc 2010 song cycle album conceived by David Byrne, who wrote the lyrics, collaborating with virtuoso British DJ and recording artist Fatboy Slim (Norman Cook) on the music.
Those tracks — with several new ones added for this first full production — dip into the ample spectrum of Byrne’s musical genius. The score spans the art rock of vintage Talking Heads, with its elements of pop, punk, R&B and oratory, through the ambient soundscape of Byrne’s The Catherine Wheel and his found-audio ventures with Brian Eno to the tireless world-music investigation of the last two decades, with notable forays into calypso and Latin rhythms. Lay a thick carpet of Slim’s big-beat dance-funk grooves underneath all that and you have a bio-musical like no other.
As distinctive as the score is the immersive staging by director Alex Timbers, set designer David Korins and lighting wizard Justin Townsend. Bathed in washes of neon pink and blue, the action takes place on and around multiple moving platforms, with the majority of the audience standing in the thick of it, gently herded by traffic cops in bubblegum-colored jumpsuits. With a DJ (Kelvin Moon Loh) perched in a box up top, the atmosphere is a time-travel trip to a velvet-rope disco circa 1980, a decadent milieu to which Imelda (Ruthie Ann Miles) was no stranger.
Indicating the project’s balance between its sense of fun and serious-mindedness, no mention is made of Imelda’s infamous collection of 2,700 pairs of shoes, found when the Marcoses fled the Philippines in 1986 and went into exile. But the setting makes plain her taste for an extravagant nightclubbing lifestyle. The visceral audience experience does effective double-duty; it gives the feeling of being on a crowded dance floor, or alternately caught in a throng of revelers or protestors on the streets of Manila.
What’s most amazing is that despite the high-concept, broad-strokes presentation, little to no prior knowledge of the Marcos regime is required to get a full impression of the protagonist’s story.
The show traces Imelda’s origins as a self-described “simple country girl,” amusingly recapping her 1949 win of the “Rose of Tacloban” beauty pageant. The three key figures in her life are clearly identified. Estrella Cumpas (Melody Butiu) is the childhood friend who helped raise her, abandoned literally behind the iron gates as Imelda climbs the ladder to prominence. Her early romance with idealistic Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino (Conrad Ricamora) is short-lived. But his fabulous “Child of the Philippines” intro makes it clear that this dreamboat is destined to carve a place in history. (He’s backed by boy-band lookalikes in matching geek glasses and crisp white shirts and ties, doing routines straight out of a Wham! video, courtesy of choreographer Annie-B Parsons.) Imelda latches instead onto ambitious Senate candidate Ferdinand Marcos (Jose Llana), helping him get elected president in 1965.
The marriage turns sour after Ferdinand’s philandering is exposed, as does the couple’s brand of leadership. This is marked by flagrant misuse of public money, while much of the country lives in poverty. Rising unrest leads to the 1971 Plaza Miranda bombing, which the Marcos government tries to pin on leftist insurgents. In the chilling number “Order 1081,” martial law is imposed and the free press gagged.
Aquino, who has become a vocal leader of the opposition, is jailed and finally forced to flee to the U.S. after staging a hunger strike. Imelda, resplendent in crimson fur for her prison visit, bids him an urgent but tender farewell in “Seven Years.” His assassination at Manila International Airport when he returns three years later brings the show to a moving emotional peak.
At that point Timbers ingeniously flips the perspective by having the performers and most of the audience switch places, allowing us to look down on the wrenching funeral procession. Costumer Clint Ramos provides beautiful symmetry by echoing the dazzling white sundresses and parasols of the young Imelda’s emergence at the start with black umbrellas and mourning clothes in the pouring rain of this late scene. A gorgeous acoustic track follows called “God Draws Straight,” performed by Loh, its lyrics lifted from oral testimony of participants in the People’s Power revolution that forced an end to the Marcos regime.
Projection designer Peter Nigrini supplements the musical storytelling with archival and on-the-spot video coverage beamed onto screens around the space. But this is as far from a didactic history lesson as it gets. And while the show plainly condemns the corruption of the Marcos government, it reserves judgment on Imelda herself, implying a degree of self-deluding innocence even after all the brutality. It’s significant that, unlike the insistent plea of Evita’s “You Must Love Me,” Imelda’s perplexed supplication to her distanced public is “Why Don’t You Love Me?”
The disarming Miles brings such unexpected emotional depths to the main role that it’s easy to buy the central character’s inherent contradictions, with Llana, Ricamora and Butiu also making vivid impressions as the secondary leads. But despite its unequivocal focus on Imelda, this is very much an ensemble show in which the entire company — refreshingly all-Asian — ace their acting duties, vocals and Parsons’ eclectic dance moves. That the audience gets to join in on some of those only heightens the enjoyment of a production in which the logistic challenges of crowd management and ensemble movement are mind-boggling.
If you don’t leave with the karaoke chorus of the title track (words suggested by Imelda for her epitaph) grafted onto your brain, get your hearing tested.
A side note: I spent one of my first-ever nights in America in late 1983 at a Talking Heads concert in San Francisco. So it was an infusion of blissful nostalgia to watch Here Lies Love as Byrne’s silver head bopped along a few feet away, while Jonathan Demme, who directed the terrific documentary record of that tour, Stop Making Sense, beamed with pleasure amid the mobile audience. But even without that personal association, I can’t imagine a more invigorating tonic than seeing this show on the final intensive weekend that closes out the 2012-13 theater season.
Venue: The Public Theater, New York (runs through July 28)
Cast: Ruthie Ann Miles, Jose Llana, Conrad Ricamora, Melody Butiu, Renee Albulario, Natalie Cortez, Debralee Daco, Joshua Dela Cruz, Kelvin Moon Loh, Jeigh Madjus, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Trevor Salter, Janelle Velasquez
Director: Alex Timbers
Concept and lyrics: David Byrne
Music: David Byrne, Fatboy Slim
Additional music: Tom Gandey, J. 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
Fight director: Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum
Presented by The Public Theater
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