May 8, 2013

Why "Here Lies Love" is So Totally Lovable

Let me make two things clear right at the beginning of this post. The first, as regular readers know, is that I hate audience participation. The second is that I absolutely loved Here Lies Love, the new musical at the Public Theater that has the audience on its feet the whole time and taking part in every scene, even at one point doing a line dance.

I don’t know how to explain this contradiction.  Except to say that no other theater happening I’ve encountered has been as much fun—or as inherently theatrical—as this one is.

The show, conceived and co-written by former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, tells the story of Imelda Marcos, the former First Lady of the Philippines whose husband Ferdinand lead a corrupt and oppressive regime for over two decades. 

During those years, she threw lavish disco parties, hobnobbed with celebrities from the heiress Doris Duke to the B-movie star George Harrison and spent millions on a Jackie Kennedy-style wardrobe (including the notorious 2,700 pairs of shoes that were discovered after the People Power Revolution pushed out the Marcos government in 1986).  

It's a story kind of like Evita's, only with a disco beat. And the club-music score by Byrne and the British musician Fatboy Slim is irresistibly catchy. It was originally released as a concept album in 2010 and there’s no orchestra for the stage show; instead, a dj in a booth spins the recorded instrumentals. But this isn’t just shake your booty music.

Most of the lyrics (and the brief bits of dialog that aren’t sung) are drawn from quotes by the real-life main players who include not only the Marcoses but the opposition leader Benigno Aquino, who, at least in this telling, was also Imelda’s first love.

This is Byrne's first musical but each song advances the story, while remaining true to character. “Why don’t you love me,” Imelda, still determinedly self-involved, laments in her final ballad.  

The performances, lead by Ruthie Ann Miles as Imelda, Jose Llana as Ferdinand and Conrad Ricamora as Aquino, are all terrific.  And the main three not only have great pipes but loads of charisma as well.  

But it’s the staging that makes this show and the credit for that goes to Alex Timbers, who here confirms his position as his generation’s most inventive director of musicals. 

Timbers and his design team, lead by set designer David Korins, have transformed the Public’s LuEsther Mertz theater space into a ‘70s era nightclub, complete with a big shiny disco ball, video screens on which are projected scenes and settings from Imelda’s life and a series of movable platforms that are constantly being reconfigured by a crew of hardworking young stagehands in brightly-colored jumpsuits.

The audience stands around the platforms and moves as they do. Sometimes we were urged to dance, at others to stand-in for adoring Marcos supporters (I’ll admit I did swoon a bit when the hunky Llana—click here to read an interview with him—shook my hand) and later we became the disaffected citizens who mourned Aquino after his assassination and joined in the revolution that ultimately brought down the Marcos regime.

The politics do get a little fuzzy amidst all the activity.  But the total experience, including the terrific choreography of downtown dancemaker Annie-B Parson and the eye-catching projections by Peter Nigrini, works on a visceral level. 

There are a few seats in a balcony area overlooking the playing area but it’s far more fun to be down on the floor.  Byrne, clad in a grey jumpsuit and looking like some really hip garage mechanic, was in the crowd the night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I attended Here Lies Love and it was an extra treat to watch him bogeying to his own music.

The show’s banal title is drawn from words that Imelda, now 83 and, remarkably, a member of the Filipino congress (click here to read about her current reelection campaign)—is said to want on her tombstone. An apt description for the show itself might be, Here Lies Fun.


Cara said...

I hate audience participation & loved Here Lies Love as well. :) It isn't typical participation. It feels natural instead of forced.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your review 100%! Such a fun and inventive show, with amazing performances.