By: David Sheward
Pop, rock, disco, politics, and stunning theatrical imagination combine in this innovative musical now at the Public Theater. This bracingly original event-one hesitates to call it something as ordinary as a show-stretches the musical genre in form and content. Conceived by David Bryne of Talking Heads and employing a richly evocative score by Byrne, Fatboy Slim, Tom Gandey, and J Pardo, Here Lies Love tells the story of Imelda Marcos’s relentless rise to power as first lady of the Philippines. It’s significant that Byrne does not indulge in an obvious comedy number about his subject’s famous shoe collection. Neither he, his musical collaborators, nor the ingenious staging of Alex Timbers stoops to such clichés.
Timbers, who has done similarly creative work with such productions as Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Peter and the Starcatcher, and set designer David Korins have reconfigured the Public’s LuEsther Hall into a disco floor. Moving platforms are taken apart and fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces to provide multiple playing areas for the story of Imelda’s progression from small-town beauty queen to ruthless queen bee of her husband’s brutal administration. Peter Nigrini’s graphic projections and Justin Townsend’s flashy lighting augment Timbers’s ingenious staging and Annie-B Parson’s 1980s-flavored choreography. The small audience-the space only holds 160-remains standing throughout the piece’s 90 minutes and becomes a part of the action as the actors move through the crowd, involving them in dance patterns, political rallies, and finally, an unspeakably passionate and simple tribute to the slain opposition leader Aquino and a celebration of the eventual overthrow of the Marcos regime.
The lead role is given complexity and depth by Ruthie Ann Miles, who manages to make this monster of privilege somewhat sympathetic. Her Imelda is not the usual Cruella De Vil stereotype with a shoe fetish but an entitled, attractive brat who believes what’s best for her is best for her country. The score’s catchy Top 40 sound makes ironic commentary on Imelda’s narcissistic relationship with her adoring public. Like a softer, gentler Evita, she seduces the population with tender, soothing melodies and caressing lyrics, while Ferdinand Marcos, her ruthless spouse, is made into an equally charismatic, deceptively romantic figure by the glitteringly handsome Jose Llana. Aquino (a dynamic Conrad Ricamora) is given more intense, forceful rallying cries, and Imelda’s childhood friend Estrella (a soulful Melody Butiu) delivers yearning ballads imploring her former pal to return to her modest roots.
Along with a vibrant ensemble playing multiple roles, these principals create a shattering, highly stylized history of a national tragedy, which somehow leaves you singing and dancing as you exit the theater. That’s a rare feat and one that deserves to be experienced by as large as an audience as possible. Hopefully, Here Lies Love will rise and have a life beyond its limited run.
Apr. 23-June 30. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., NYC. Tue 8pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 5pm & 9:30pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. Running time 90 minutes. $80.50-95.50. (212) 967-7555. www.publictheater.org
Photos: Sara Krulwich, Justin Levine and Marion Trikosko. c/o The Library of Congress.