NEW YORK — The beat of David Byrne’s sexy new life-of-Imelda-Marcos musical, “Here Lies Love,” never rests. And neither, for that matter, does the audience. In a black-box-turned-disco inside the Public Theater, spectators bop along with the vivacious cast as it recounts the tale of an autocratic leader’s wife — rendered in a far jauntier style than achieved by the show’s solemn elder cousin, “Evita.”
We’re reminded via director Alex Timbers’s restlessly clever staging how Marcos made an impoverished nation the prisoner of her own egomania and appetites. It’s a twisted love story, having to do with Imelda’s own adoration of all things Imelda, that culminates in the delightfully insipid ballad, “Why Don’t You Love Me?” As sung by the sensational Ruthie Ann Miles, the number encapsulates the bottomless petulance of a woman who’d long since exhausted her country’s patience.
If one were to crown “Here Lies Love” as the most gleeful night of musical theater of the Broadway season, that would be an error. Because the show happens to be playing to sold-out houses off-Broadway. Positing Annie Baker’s exquisitely observed “The Flick” as the finest play so far this season would also be to ignore the Great White Way, because it, too, ran off-Broadway (until its recent closing at Playwrights Horizons). Similarly, suggesting that downtown’s hilarious “Buyer & Cellar,” with Michael Urie as an actor working in Barbra Streisand’s basement, is the best solo show in the city would be — well, you get the pattern.
As Broadway works its dizzy head off in April, crowding in openings of new plays and musicals at the mind-numbing rate of one every two days, a perception is inadvertently reinforced almost daily: that the most distinguished fare is found elsewhere. Time and again, the shows trotted out these days on the theater’s biggest stage — what director-producer Harold Prince rightly has called its “store window to the world” — are revealing something seriously lacking in Broadway’s brain trust.
It is a season of miscalculation all over Times Square, from the desperate intensity of the eagerly anticipated revival of “Pippin” to the dreary acting exercises of the star-driven “Orphans,” with a miscast Alec Baldwin. In weighty offerings such as the shtick-dependent “The Testament of Mary” starring Fiona Shaw, and weightless ones such as the endless jukebox rewind of “Motown: The Musical,” the prevailing feeling is not of having senses heightened, but of hopes unrealized.
Were it not for the sublime musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “Matilda” and, to a lesser extent, the exuberant shenanigans of “Kinky Boots,” the Broadway season would feel like an inspirational desert. Even the promising entries, such as Douglas Carter Beane’s “The Nance” — a new play with Nathan Lane as a gay burlesque star of the 1930s — feel as if they’ve yet to work out all the inconsistencies in their themes and characters. And giddier bits of celebrity casting, as in Bette Midler’s blissful turn as super-agent Sue Mengers in John Logan’s “I’ll Eat You Last,” are compromised, too, in Midler’s case by a script as slight as a nightly edition of “Extra.”
No doubt audiences can find elements to enjoy on these various evenings: the uncanny impersonation of Michael Jackson by “Motown’s” 12-year-old Jibreel Mawry; dramatist Colm Toibin’s evocative words for Shaw’s embodiment of Christ’s mother in “The Testament of Mary”; the extraordinary deftness of Andrea Martin, delivering a textbook show-stopper in “Pippin’s” “No Time at All.” They remain, however, segregated joys on what should be the wholly integrated pleasures that exceptionally high ticket prices should dictate.
The season ended with the official opening of “Pippin” on April 25; the nominees for the Tony Awards will be announced Tuesday morning, in anticipation of the ceremony on June 9. Director Diane Paulus’s heavy hand with this rather fragile 1972 musical — fondly recalled for Stephen Schwartz’s pop score and Bob Fosse’s seductive staging — underlines the season-long sense of misalignment. In too many instances in which “Pippin” should feel effortless, the audience detects a surfeit of exertion. No one in this production, a three-ring circus of tumblers, jugglers and aerialists, appears to have heard of the axiom, “Never let them see you sweat.”
Paulus, whose revival of “Hair” was a highlight a few years back, treats the schematic “Pippin” as the canvas for a series of lively if superfluous carnival acts; but the charm of the musical, the tale of Charlemagne’s son (played by the dashing Matthew James Thomas), is in its pared-down whimsy. At the Music Box Theatre, it’s all pumped up to the point of falseness, an impression reinforced by the mechanical performance of Patina Miller as the Leading Player — the role that Ben Vereen perfected, once upon a time.
It comes as a relief to escape the beleaguered sidewalks of Times Square and find oneself in precincts far more conducive of late to meaningful artistic transactions. At Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in the West Village, for instance, Jonathan Tolins’s “Buyer & Cellar” is eclipsing Broadway’s “I’ll Eat You Last” as a multidimensional unraveling of our voyeuristic enjoyment of celebrity entitlement. Playing a fictional naif who falls into a job in a shopping street that Streisand has built in the basement of one of her Malibu homes, the gifted Urie proves to be the ideal, wide-eyed guide into this exotic and yet entirely accessible terrain.
Several blocks to the east, “Here Lies Love” is nightly presenting a rocking antidote to the contrivances going on uptown. Put on your sensible shoes, because the best seats to the show — set to music by Byrne (of Talking Heads fame) and Fatboy Slim, and choreographed by Annie-B Parson — don’t exist. (You can opt to sit in a balcony ringing the theater, but that looks like far less fun.) While a crew latches and unlatches pieces of David Korins’s movable set, the audience, about 100 strong, moves with it.
As a DJ (the excellent Kelvin Moon Loh) looks down from his perch, what enfolds is the all-too-familiar account of a Third World country Shanghaied by corruption and self-indulgence. The principals — who include Miles, Jose Llana as Ferdinand Marcos and Conrad Ricamora, playing the martyr Ninoy Aquino — give thrilling shape to the poisons and passions the Marcoses engender. Byrne and Slim’s sultry compositions not only intensify the tropical heat, they also make you feel like dancing.
You’re encouraged to do so, and don’t be surprised to find a songwriter serenely grooving along, too. Byrne frequently shows up on the dance floor, with every right to be as happy as he looks.
For “Pippin,” “Orphans,” “I’ll Eat You Last” and “The Testament of Mary,” call 212-239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com. For “Motown: The Musical,” call 877-250-2929 or visit www.motownthemusical.com. For “Here Lies Love,” call 212-967-7555 or visit www.publictheater.org. For “Buyer & Cellar,” call 866-811-4111 or visit www.rattlestick.org.