Review: Here Lies Love. Concept and Lyrics by David Byrne. Music by David Byrne & Fatboy Slim. Additional Music by Tom Dandey & J. Pardo. Produced by Seattle Repertory Theatre. Choreography by Annie-B Parson. Directed by Alex Timbers. Music Direction by Justin Levine. Scenic Design by David Korins. Costume Design by Clint Ramos. Lighting Design by Justin Townsend. Sound Design by M.L. Dogg and Cody Spencer. Projection Design by Peter Nigrini. With Reneé Albulario, Belinda Allyn, Mark Bautista, Melody Butiu, Debralee Daco, Jordan De Leon, Michael Feldman, Jaygee Macapugay, Jeigh Madjus, Jonelle Margallo, Geena Quintos, Shea Renne, Conrad Ricamora, Enrico Rodriguez, Trevor Salter, Janelle Velasquez, Tobias Christian Wong. Now through June 3, 2017 at Seattle Repertory Theatre.
It’s the hottest show in town…Seattle Repertory Theatre’s bold and risky production of HERE LIES LOVE, the ” a revolutionary musical experience” conceived and written by noted musicians David Byrne and Fatboy Slim that focuses on the life of notorious Filipino First Lady/co-dictator Imelda Marcos who with her husband Ferdinand Marcos ruled over the Philippines from 1965 until 1986 before they were toppled from power in a People’s Revolution. While Ferdinand died in exile in Hawaii not long after losing power, Imelda eventually returned to the Philippines and has won office to the House of Representatives 4 times, and currently serves in the Filipino House at the age of 87. Meanwhile, there are still investigations into the assets of Imelda and the Marcos family and charges they are still hiding millions, if not billions of dollars looted from the Philippines and through the corruption of their regime.
She’s a great topic for a musical!! Such a role role model! Beauty queen from a poor branch of a prominent family marries ambitious politician and through corruption and scandal, they rule with an iron hand for two decades while robbing the country blind and imprisoning/killing the opposition but it’s all ok because…
“Here Lies Love”….
(Sigh. It’s the moral equivalent of writing a musical about Melania Trump and calling it “Her Bigly Heart” and white-washing the ongoing corruption and venality of the Trump Family and Administration.)
“Here Lies Love” is the brainchild of iconic rock/pop front man of the pioneering New Wave/Art Rock super group Talking Heads, David Byrne who gradually over the course of several years became fascinated by the idea of doing a music piece about Imelda. Her life as the globe trotting, jet setting, shopaholic who hobnobbed with socialites and artists in the high end salons and discotheques of New York, London and Paris led Byrne to the idea of a show about Marcos set within the world of a disco. Byrne collaborated with another celebrated musician, Fatboy Slim to create the first iteration of the piece, a concept album of dance club inspired songs featuring 22 music artists including Florence Welch, Nellie McKay, Cyndi Lauper, Tori Amos, Martha Wainwright, Natalie Merchant, Sharon Jones and Kate Pierson alternating singing the two major female roles in the piece, that of Imelda and her childhood friend/caregiver Estrella Cumpas. This album was a mixed success; Pitchfork referred to its “bland competence”. (And, did no critic call out Byrne for a lack of Filipino or Asian singers on the original album…really? It’s like making an album about Stonewall and not including gay performers or “The Obama Musical” and forgetting to bring in African American singers…)
The album then led to a staged production at New York’s Public Theater directed by Alex Timbers and then a short run in London with both productions receiving a variety of reviews from raves to pans from both media and audiences. “Here Lies Love” is one of those polarizing shows that inspire very different kinds of emotive reactions from people. It’s either not your cup of tea at all, or you just let go and let the experience wash over you. Byrne has admitted to not being a fan of traditional musical theater (he’s not fond of comparisons of his musical theater show about dictators with that other musical theater show about dictators….Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice’s “Evita”) and set out to make sure that “Here Lies Love” would be an interactive experience for audiences by recreating the world of a dance club inside traditional theater spaces. Productions of “Here Lies Love” have included transforming theaters into dance clubs with the use of movable platforms and discotheque style lighting and video effects to complete the illusion. Audiences can purchase tickets that either get them down on the main floor of the “club” and experiencing the play’s action up close and in their face, or from galleries and traditional seating overlooking the main floor.
Seattle Repertory Theatre was keen to stage this show despite the risks involved, which included the cost of remodeling their main theater and cutting down the occupancy to around 300. Their hope is the success of this production will allow them to co-produce further productions of “Here Lies Love” at theaters around the country. Seattle was also a natural location to stage this work; it has a large and vibrant Filipino American population, an obvious audience for a show that concerns 40 years of Filipino history but also presents the challenge of trying to engage older Filipino audiences that may or may not have a very favorable view of Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos and the role they had in the assassination of beloved opposition leader, Ninoy Aquino. Not everyone is capable of taking in an hour and a half long “disco musical” about plutocrats who plundered a country for decades.
Morality aside, what about the production itself? It’s a giddy E-ticket thrill ride…candy colored and bedazzled with expert stagecraft and design. It’s all bright colors and sharp graphics and pulsating strobe lights and energetic performances from gorgeously toned young actors and dancers. It’s high energy and carefully crafted to propel the audience along like a visit to any dark ride at Disney or Universal Studios, the musical theater equivalent of visiting The Haunted Mansion or Hogwarts but with cheery/cheesy pop songs and easy to navigate choreography. It’s all briskly staged by the original team including director Alex Timbers with choreographer Annie-B Parsons and the same designers including David Korins moving platform sets and Clint Ramos’ delicious costumes. This show looks and feels as lush as any palace decorated by Imelda herself. If you love bright, gaudy shows with upbeat simplistic music and trite story lines, you’re gonna love “Here Lies Love”. It’s like Teletubbies for grown ups who can afford to spend $100 on a ticket.
And, as someone who took the “immersive” plunge and experienced the show on the floor surrounded by all the actors and the action, it’s terrific fun…and, if you’re like me and enjoy seeing how shows work up close, it’s fascinating to be close enough to see the cables and the stage hands and the paint job on the set pieces and the needlework on the costumes and sweat trickling down the faces of the hardworking actors. (Plus, on opening night, there was the fun of seeing it all with David Byrne himself in the audience standing 5 feet away and mouthing along to his own lyrics…cute.) The non-stop songs and action have no room for any dialogue and it does feel like you’re in the middle of a live music video with a cacophony of sounds and a dazzling blur of stage craft surrounding you at all times and it is all very exciting and breathtaking but at some point it does become a bit exhausting. It’s not so much physically tiring but viscerally…as a middle aged, out of shape fellow, it became a tad wearisome after about 75 minutes and that was partly due to the story itself starting to wear out its shallow welcome. (Note: The immersive experience is probably best for those used to standing for longer periods of time and able to deal with the noise and the choreographed chaos. If you hate feeling crowded and herded about by ushers, it’s probably not the option for you.)
So, here’s the conundrum. “Here Lies Love” is gorgeous to look at and experience up close. The songs aren’t brilliant but they’re pleasant enough and the title song will leave you humming it as you exit the theater. The young actors are just terrific especially the ensemble who play a huge variety of characters in a large number of very quick costume changes. There’s really only 4 named characters in the show: Imelda, Ferdinand, Ninoy Aquino and Imelda’s friend Estrella and all four of these actors do good jobs though they’re never really given that much to play in a show where the characters are all cardboard cutouts of the real thing. Of the four characters, really only Aquino is filled out a bit and as a result, he’s the most interesting character and very well acted by a charismatic Conrad Ricamora.
As for poor Imelda herself, this material really does her a disservice. Jaygee Macapugay is captivating in the role, channeling all of Imelda’s demons, but the character is mostly reduced to being a frail caricature of the real “Iron Butterfly of the Philippines” constantly changing clothes and popping pills and pining for the love of her former boyfriend Aquino, her philandering husband and for the love of her country. Byrne has turned her into a pathetic heroine from a Harlequin romance novel…which apparently is ok in the eyes of Imelda herself. She’s been quoted as saying she’s flattered by the musical…and, why not? It’s not very harsh on her.
So, yeah. It’s a mixed review from me on a show that’s going to elicit a lot of mixed feelings. If you take the immersive plunge, it could be great fun for you…I’ll frankly admit I had a terrific time (for at least 75 minutes) and enjoyed the thrill ride of it all. But, I can’t really see myself enjoying it from other perspectives, sitting in a regular theater seat and watching a show that trivializes a serious subject with cardboard characters and ok pop songs. Despite the huge talents involved and the money spent and the grandeur of its design and the energetic young cast, it’s still a novelty ride. And, to raise the dreaded “E word”, you could actually produce “Evita” (a show that also has to deal with questions of ethics in its creation) in this exact same immersive experience and get the same result…but at least you’d still have a great show to watch from the “cheap seats” because “Evita” has a stronger through line, well though out characters, and far better songs than “Here Lies Love”.