She’s the one who had lots of shoes, right? About the extent of my knowledge on Imelda Marcos, the subject of the new musical Here Lies Love, which has returned to the Public after a smash run last summer. But shoes don’t feature into this bio-musical about the great beauty’s rise to prominence and gradual corruption as First Lady of the Philippines. The story is a lot like Evita, without the early death.
But this show is actually nothing like Evita. That’s because no Evita I’ve ever heard of would be set at a dance club, complete with line dancing, karaoke, jumping up and down, being herded around the theater at various points in the show, and seeing the performers weave in and out of the crowd. I’m not much of a dancer, so before the performance I thought hopefully: Maybe I wouldn’t really have to dance? Wrongo! There is no “I’m not dancing” allowed for audience members in Here Lies Love, not unless you want to be a real party pooper. Almost all tickets are general admission, and hot pink-clad handlers will steer you around as the stage moves and the performers move along with it. Then at various points you’re exhorted to dance.
What does all this have to do with Imelda Marcos? Why is it set in a nightclub? I don’t know. Is it just because it’s awesome and fun? (Which is most certainly is!) Another reason: at the top of the show they mention that Filipinos love dance clubs, karaoke and line dancing. Whatever. How about I stop quibbling? As a theatrical device the setting is totally effective. I was physically involved, which helped me to get utterly absorbed in the piece. To be honest, I’m not sure that would have happened if I’d been sitting. Here Lies Love started out as a 2010 concept album from David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, and the tunes are high-energy but a little uneven. More problematically, the writing is flimsy. For example: Imelda seems delighted after her marriage to Fernando Marcos, but very soon afterward she says something along the lines of “What does he want from me?” and then promptly starts popping prescription pills. If I wasn’t having so much fun, I’d have gotten a little frustrated with this kind of clunky storytelling.
But I was having too much fun. I think most of the credit for how good this production is should probably go to Alex Timbers, whose work on Rocky was also excellent. Just in case you aren’t bombarded with enough sensations already: he’s included lots of projections of documentary photography and original video footage, which contextualizes the deteriorating situation in the Philippines. (The script itself doesn’t really provide enough context). The cast is also great: Ruthie Ann Miles looks wholesome and sweet (and a LOT like Imelda) and becomes utterly deluded and vainglorious (but still kinda sweet) by the end of the show. I also loved Josa Llana, who’s got lots of charisma as Marcos, and Conrad Ricamora as the nation’s conscience, Aquino.
I now have a new show to recommend for anyone visiting New York. It’s fun, it’s got incredible visuals, the performers are committed and high-energy, it’s got fabulous projections and best of all, you’re definitely a part of the show. You really feel like you’re seeing something dynamic, unique, and consuming. This is that rare show that had me shelling out for full price tickets ($100! OUCH!) but the investment was certainly not wasted. If ever a production gives you your money’s worth, it’s this one.