By Mark A. Newman
Photo by Joan Marcus
If you would’ve told me that the brains behind "Burning Down the House" and "The Rockefeller Skank" would’ve been two of the driving forces behind one of the most amazing theatrical experiences I’ve had in the last 20 years, I would’ve told you to go home because you’re drunk. And if you further informed me that the subject of this extravaganza was former first lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos, I would then put you into a cab and sent you off into the night.
But dammit, you were right: Here Lies Love, with music by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, is an immense and immersive, hard-thumping spectacular that manages to bring the theatre-going experience to new heights. And under the fluid and exciting direction of Alex Timbers, this theatrical experience is definitely not “the same as it ever was.”
Yet, as you enter the LuEsther Theater at The Public’s newly revamped facilities on Lafayette Street you may ask yourself, “Where is my beautiful Playbill?” You may ask yourself, “Where is my aisle seat?” Brace yourself, because the typical theatrical experience has been jettisoned stage left. Here Lies Love tells the story of Imelda Marcos from her youth in the Philippines to her rise to fame, power, and notoriety in a setting that is essentially an old school disco. You’re not going to just sit back and watch Here Lies Love; you’re totally immersed in it. Most of the seats have been removed and the majority of the audience is standing on the floor amid the shifting stages that move to and fro throughout. Audience members are safely herded out of harm’s way by pink jumpsuit-clad ushers. The audience becomes an essential element of the party. Yes, there will be line dancing!
Pre-show, as the audience makes its way into the theater, the action is already in high gear as a DJ in his booth overseeing the action and keeps the beats going. The DJ also serves as a friendly narrator as the show dictates…think Che from Evita, but with two turntables and a microphone, and a shock of blonde hair. He encourages the audience to dance, clap, and even sing throughout the show but gives a surprisingly rousing closing number – “God Draws Straight” -- a heartfelt emotional wallop as the electronic disco trappings fade away.
The lighting by Justin Townsend is a mix of theatrical and dance club with attention paid to needs for proper video lighting. Since the show revolves around a newsmaker who often found herself on television, video cameras are vital in presenting the action as is David Korins’ set which goes from sandy beaches to seedy disco in the blink of an eye. The scenic design is both a marvel of ease and complexity. With two stages at either end of the space, the action moves seamlessly from platform to platform via the moving structures in the center that transform from runways to stages to even a series of raised platforms with alarming ease. The costumes by Clint Ramos are exquisite in their simplicity and make it quickly known who the good guys and bad guys are by a classic black or white color palette. But don’t worry: Imelda’s gaudy gowns with the puffy sleeves are present and manage to look a little like deranged prom dresses.
While the rollicking pop/rock/new wave score by Byrne and, um, Slim is a stunning centerpiece, the table set by Timbers is truly remarkable. Rather than experience the show from among the crowd on the main floor, I had a seat in the gallery overlooking the action, a mirror ball directly in front of me. Believe me, it added to the ambiance. What Timbers did was so simple and yet so intricate, it’s amazing how well it worked. What’s even more amazing is how seamlessly the action moved around the space, all of which was utilized to the fullest extent possible. I have to admit, I got a kick out of watching the mass of audience members move in a series of fluid motions to make way for the stages’ many configurations. The ebb and flow of a musical’s audience has never been so amusing to watch. Or as impressive.
The cast is, in a word, breathtaking. The show rises and falls on the shoulders of this amazing troupe. As Imelda Marcos, Ruthie Ann Miles shines as the “Rose of Tacloban,” as Imelda is nicknamed in her youth. She brings Imelda on a journey from the young, naïve wannabe model full circle to a narcissistic, power-hungry diva. Miles didn’t need any spotlights because she shined insanely bright any time she was on the stage. As the show draws to a close and she pleads “Why Don’t You Love Me?” to her people, the audience laughs with a mix of pity and pathos at how clueless the fallen first lady is. Miles plays it to the hilt, not a bit of irony in her performance. Her Imelda is truly a star-making turn and she astounds in this central role.
As the corrupt and philandering Ferdinand Marcos, New York stage veteran Jose Llana proves once again why he’s seldom out of work. His rich tenor voice and marquee looks make the distasteful Filipino president likable despite the evil deeds he does (or at least accused of doing). Marcos is a man used to getting his way by any means necessary and Llana portrays him with the suave demeanor of a super villain. Llana also does double duty as one of the dancers so kudos to a classic triple-threat.
Conrad Ricamora portrays the villain’s arch nemesis Ninoy Aquino, who opposed Marcos at every turn as a Filipino senator, and even dated a young Imelda, ultimately rejecting her for being “too tall.” Bad news, Ninoy: Imelda carries a grudge. His rousing call to arms is classic Talking Heads but is a perfect stirring theatrical anthem in the tradition of Evita’s “A New Argentina” and Les Miserables’ “Do You Hear the People Sing.” Anyone at all familiar with Philippines’ history knows what happens to Aquino and that makes the character even more tragic. Ricamora plays the doomed politician with courage and verve and possesses a dynamic presence that resonates throughout the show.
I have to admit that I was borderline speechless at the conclusion of Here Lies Love because in a quarter century of attending live theatre in New York, I have never seen anything quite like this amazing production. I was stunned at how innovative the show was and the credit belongs equally to Timbers, the composers, as well as the dynamic cast, but also to The Public Theater itself for venturing out and producing something so cutting edge. Regardless of whether you’re a Filipino history buff, a Talking Heads fan, a Fatboy Slim enthusiast, or just a theatre aficionado, Here Lies Love will have you dancing down Lafayette Street. And if you wear out your shoes, don’t worry: you can borrow a pair of Imelda’s.
Here Lies Love has been extended to June 30…so far.
Here Lies Love
Music by: David Byrne and Fatboy Slim
Direction: Alex Timbers
Choreography: Annie-B Parson
Lighting: Justin Townsend
Projections: Peter Nigrini
Scenery: David Korins
Sound: M.L. Dogg & Cody Spencer
Costumes: Clint Ramos
Additional music: Tom Gandey, Jay Pardo
Featuring: Renée Albulario (Ensemble), Melody Butiu (Ensemble), Natalie Cortez (Ensemble), Debralee Daco (Ensemble), Joshua Dela Cruz (Ensemble), Jose Llana (Ferdinand Marcos), Kelvin Moon Loh (Ensemble), Jeigh Madjus (Ensemble), Ruthie Ann Miles (Imelda Marcos), Maria-Christina Oliveras (Ensemble), Conrad Ricamora (Aquino), Trevor Salter (Ensemble), and Janelle Velasquez (Ensemble).
The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York City, www.publictheater.org