Disco despotism isn’t exactly a new genre – Cabaret hinted the way, Evita made it clear, American Psycho, in its fashion, added a variation, all in service of social horrors offset by catchy tunes – but Here Lies Love, the rambunctious new immersive musical from David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, pushes the concept to an extreme that likely won’t be matched until someone has the bright idea to transform Party Monster into The Michael Alig Musical.
In Here Lies Love, a technical marvel of an ever-moving stage production – ever-moving being the operative and quite literal phrase here – the subject is the dictatorial regime of Ferdinand Marcos, who served as the president of the Philippines from 1972 to 1982 and, in all that time, seems never to have encountered a human right he couldn’t violate.
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But, as with Evita, Here Lies Love shifts the focus to the dictator’s wife, all the better for the decadent glamour and bejeweled nights on the town that contrast so nastily with widespread poverty, the crushing of political opposition and even the mysterious disappearances of old friends who carry an inconvenient truth or two.
So Byrne, Slim, (with additional music by Tom Gandey and J Pardo), director Alex Timbers, and choreographer Annie-B Parson have joined with a fine cast (and perhaps even finer creative and technical team) to bring to vivid life Imelda Marcos and her heady days and nights of celebrity hobnobbing, pill-popping, disco-dancing and blithe disregard for people whose money she squanders.
Opening tonight at the vastly remodeled Broadway Theatre, Here Lies Love recounts Imelda’s story beginning with her poor-as-dirt days through high school beauty pageants and a brief young love with a boy who’ll grow up to be Che to her Evita. Eventually catching the eye of hotshot politico Ferdinand Marcos, Imelda soon becomes both trophy wife and plausible diversion: In her Jackie O pillbox hat and speed-pill physique, she wins over the populace while hubby is stealing the country blind.
Imelda, played by Arielle Jacobs, is, for a quick scene or two, the brief heart in an otherwise heartless tale. No sooner is she married to handsome, charismatic Ferdinand (Jose Llana) than the sweet, naive girl from the poor side of town becomes entranced with the baubles and threads and flashbulbs and drugs and attention that set about their corrupting influences with a rapidity one should expect of a 90-minute show. Soon enough she’s building monuments to herself with money her country can ill afford, she’s sending off to places unknown a once-beloved nanny whose only crime is her memory; and she turns a blind eye to the seven-year imprisonment of political rival Ninoy Aquino (Conrad Ricamora), that young paramour from ages past left to rot in jail and, eventually, worse.
So how can a tale so depressing in description make for what will surely become one of the most popular nights on the town for New Yorkers and tourists alike It starts with the music. Byrne and Slim (and Tom Gandey and J Pardo) have concocted some terrific blends here. There’s the pulsating American dance club music that so enthralled Filipino nightlifers, there’s a heavy dose of Filipino folk music tradition, some fairly straightforward American show tunes and – listen carefully – a dash here and there of Talking Heads-era Byrne. It all combines into a winning soundscape.
But the real pull of Here Lies Love is the staging, with a malleable performance space, an audience herded to and fro, and cast members finding perches throughout the venue. In Here Lies Love, a D.J./Emcee provides narrative segues, musical set-ups, dance instructions and how-tos for the dance-floor audience members guided here and there by pink-suited ushers holding large glow-stick-style batons.
The view from the more traditional mezzanine seats too is fine too, and might even allow for a more encompassing appreciation for Parson’s choreography, which crosses cultural boundaries, historical timelines and fast-slow variations to serve the mood of any particular scene.
Peter Nigrini’s video projections take full advantage of the venue’s wall space, using historical footage (and fake historical footage), closed circuit video, and clips of celebrities past to conjure both time and place. There’s even a moment (annoyingly at odds with proper chronology) when we’re transported back to the heady days of Studio 54.
All this movement requires immense technical know-how; Here Lies Love boasts the talents of David Korins (scenic design), Clint Ramos (costume design), Justin Townsend (lighting design), and M.L. Dogg & Cody Spencer (sound design), all at the top of their games.
And no small amount of the show’s appeal is Broadway’s first all-Filipino cast, with stand-outs among the large ensemble including Llana as Ferdinand and Ricamora as the doomed idealist Ninoy Aquino. Lea Salonga, in a guest appearance as Aquino’s grieving mother through Aug. 13, lends her considerable stage presence and powerhouse voice to showstopper “Just Ask The Flowers.”
As Imelda, Jacobs plays the ambitious, starry-eyed youth pleasantly enough, and does fine in conveying the latter stages of cynical corruption. But Here Lies Love offers only a half-hearted stab at bridging the two chronological extremes of Imelda’s life, with little attempt at explaining the making of this particular political monster. Perhaps that’s why Here Lies Love, for all its impressive confidence, feels a bit thin in afterthought. Maybe a musical needs a central character who can sing “Why Don’t You Love Me?” without it coming off like an anthem to cluelessness.
Title: Here Lies Love
Venue: Broadway’s Broadway Theatre
Director: Alex Timbers
Concept, Music & Lyrics: David Byrne
Music: Fatboy Slim
Additional Music: Tom Gandey and J Pardo
Principal Cast: Arielle Jacobs, Jose Llana, Conrad Ricamora, Melody Butiu, Moses Villarama, Lea Salonga
Running time: 90 min (no intermission)
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