NEW YORK–The drink cart rolled out at the conclusion of “Here Lies Love” is completely in keeping with the party-hearty spirit of David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s boisterous rock musical, a show that makes you feel like dancing even though its subject would not in other circumstances have you walking on air.
The poisonous dictatorial reign of Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos and, more to the point, the life of his toxically entitled spouse, Imelda, form the thematic core of the 90-minute show, staged at the Public Theater in a space that director Alex Timbers, set designer David Korins and choreographer Annie-B Parson transform into an exuberant–at times ear-splitting–disco. Activated by Imelda’s delusions of grandeur, the conceit works splendidly. It makes sense that a woman famous for her excesses should end up, like Eva Peron, the star of her own outsize musical-theater pageant.
I returned to “Here Lies Love” this month see it in its reconstituted shape as a commercial production with an open ended run. It was a revisit that confirmed it as one of New York’s most exhilarating musicals–far sharper than any of the musicals that opened uptown in the Broadway season that just wrapped up. The show started at the non-profit Public in spring 2013 and after enjoying a sold-out stay, looked via its commercial producers for another suitable space. Coming up empty-handed, they signed an unusual deal with the Public, renting “Here Lies Love’s” original quarters in the multi-theater complex on Lafayette Street.
The show’s logistics reveal why a new location was so hard to find. About 90 percent of the audience occupies the same dance floor on which the cast–led by the superb Ruthie Ann Miles, as Imelda–tells the Marcos’s story, entirely through Byrne’s and Slim’s songs. (Balcony seating accommodates a couple dozen of the fainter-hearted.) It’s not only the actors who are in constant motion; so are the ticket holders, compelled to circulate by a cadre of jump-suited acolytes who constantly roll sections of the modular stage into new configurations. One minute, Jose Llana’s sexy Ferdinand is in your face, crooning as the autocrat-in-training, trailed by a TV camera, campaigns for the presidency. In the next, his political adversary (and one-time Imelda lover) Benigno Aquino, played by the excellent Conrad Ricamora, is being propelled by you on a wheeled platform.
As the Marcoses consolidate power and become increasingly profligate, the show shifts in tone; the couple’s attempts to project romantic tropical bliss become sinister, and a people’s movement, roused by protest music, materializes. Byrne and Slim’s score, filled with potential radio hits, infectiously repeats melody lines over and over, until the sweetness turns malignant. The motif reaches its apex in Imelda’s funny-childish complaint song, “Why Don’t You Love Me?” Atop a metal staircase, wearing a white dress with exaggerated shoulders and red detailing that looks like drops of blood, Miles’s Imelda sulks cluelessly, obliviously, as authority ebbs from her and her husband in the People Power Revolution of 1986.
Parson’s slithery-and-staccato choreography feeds joyously on the dance-club beat; a deejay (Vincent Rodriguez III) keeps us mindful of the fact that above all, “Here Lies Love” is a celebration, of a curtain brought down on tyranny.
Here Lies Love, concept and lyrics, David Byrne, music by Byrne and Fatboy Slim. Directed by Alex Timbers. At Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., New York. Visit herelieslove.com or call 212-967-7555.