NY Theater Review by JK Clarke
Writing a review for Here Lies Love, David Byrne’s immersive musical about Imelda Marcos (which has just returned to The Public Theater for an open run), is a lot like writing copy for an awards show or a PR campaign. It’s easy to be too effusive and ecstatic about every aspect of the performance. But, to seek out the weaknesses for balance would be dishonest. Therefore, one has no choice but to enthuse.
Although creator David Byrne has stated that Here Lies Love is neither biographical nor a period piece, it is a fairly candid look at Imelda Marcos’ rise from poor country girl to hated despot and the most powerful and notorious woman in the history of the Philippines. While her story initially appears to mirror that of Evita Peron, Imelda never had the love of her people as Evita did, and her profile—told here in a matter-of-fact and not at all sympathetic tone—is more pathetic and galling. There really isn’t a lot to like about the woman, but we do get to see how she became who she is.
Every aspect of the production is an artful piece that creates an even greater whole. The ensemble are energetic, fun players and terrific singers who give the play its total vibrancy. Add to that beautiful period costumes (Clint Ramos), from elegant 1950s pattern dresses to Imelda’s gaudy super-shouldered sparkly suits. And, just as vital—this is an immersive piece where the set and audience (standing, moving and even dancing) are moved around the room to allow for entirely different sets—are David Korins’ scenic design, Justin Townsend’s lighting, M.L. Dogg and Cody Spencer’s sound and Peter Nigrini’s projection design, which all fall perfectly in place to create a club atmosphere in which the characters mingle, and occasionally interact, with the audience: shaking hands, posing for the cameras and dancing. Visual and auditory information is everywhere, and the audience constantly swivels to look from one end of the “club” to the other to watch singers on either end (or on the side stages) and to catch glimpses of information flitting across screens or walls throughout.
The centerpiece of the show is David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s music. While rolicking, catchy and driving, none of the songs are incidental. The lyrics tell the story entirely (in fact, there are few, if any, spoken words) and comprehensively. Every one of the songs serves to move the plot along (rather than merely punctuating plot points, like most musicals), telling the story in a very vivid yet straightforward manner. One could experience the entire story merely listening to the cast recording alone (albeit deprived of the spectacle). Byrne has written some of the most memorable in the history of music, particularly during his time as frontman of The Talking Heads. And here is no exception. In the funky, dance-y “Fabulous One” Aquino (the talented and charming Conrad Ricamora) speech-sings his catchy condemnation of Imelda and his justification for his own political ambition: “Now, I have risen/at the risk of her ire.” It’s a stylistic echo of one of Byrnes’ sharp and abstract lines from “Once in a Lifetime” (e.g. “And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack.”)
The music covers several modern genres: Soul, Funk and R&B, traditional show tunes with a little extra zip, swinging rock, disco, Madonna-esque pop (Eleven Days), etc. But they all have an undertone that is distinctly David Byrne—lyrically brilliant and musically complex while remaining accessible and catchy. Byrne’s trademark vocal layering is evident in many songs and despite the various types of singers in the production, it’s easy to imagine Byrne performing any of these songs. As Imelda, Ruthie Ann Miles is excellent. A powerful singer and performer (she won the Lucille Lortell best actress award for this role last year during its brief run) and entirely believable in her role. And Kelvin Moon Loh as Marcos is a suave actor and terrific singer.
Musicals often attempt to tell a story, which gets lost in the production numbers. Here Lies Love’s storyline is classical, perhaps even Shakespearean. Country girl meets boy, falls in love, but gets dumped. Soon after, becomes a beauty pageant winner and goes to the big city and meets the other boy’s political rival, marries him and becomes the first lady of the country. Her excessive greediness leads to a showdown with the ex-boyfriend whom she jails and eventually assassinates, all the while looting the country’s treasury. It is a complex play of morality, tragedy and heartache.
Here Lies Love underwent some fine tuning in the year since its initial run, which enhanced the overall experience. Director Alex Timbers has triumphed in taking Byrne’s music and concept and Slim’s mastery of the club scene and created an absolutely unique and original theatrical production that both informs and includes its very committed audience. It is truly a crossover piece, appealing to fans and non-fans of musicals, classical theater enthusiasts and younger, more progressive audiences seeking non-traditional and energetic productions. It’s exactly the jolt the theater world needs.
Here Lies Love. Open run. Comfortable shoes and clothing are recommended. At The Public Theater (425 Laffayette Street). www.herelieslove.com