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Here Lies Love

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Here Lies Love
Ruthie Ann Miles
Photo by Joan Marcus

Of the characteristics that musicals and nightclubs share, perhaps the most enticing — and the most frustrating — is their tendency to be there one moment and gone the next. I'm not necessarily speaking just of their tendency to close the instance you turn your head, though that does happen, but the way they can change character in the blink of a bleary eye based on your mood, the people around you, and even the time of year. The show you see — or are a part of — tonight probably won't be the same one you see if you go back, say, a year from now.

So tread lightly, if you tread at all, back to the Millennium. Wait, sorry, that's technically only the club-within-the-play that's used as the unifying and energizing concept of Here Lies Love, the musical by David Byrne (concept and lyrics) and Fatboy Slim (music) that just reopened at The Public Theater following a triumphant run there last summer. But at this fast-forward evening, you won't be able to separate the disco from the drama, partly because you're intimately entangled in both and partly because this sumptuous-looking but wafer-thin outing would otherwise fall apart.

On the face of it, throwing Imelda Marcos, the First Lady of the Philippines (from 1965 to 1986), into an Evita-like swirl of adulation and controversy makes a certain amount of sense given the similarity in upbringings between Marcos and Eva Perσn: poor girls who dreamed of celebrity, then attained it by turning aside the right people, marrying well, and then using the resulting star allure to propel them into the public consciousness — whether the public wanted it not. And neither show shies away from examining how the greasy machinations behind the scenes is not exactly anything to celebrate.

The difference between the two is that Here Lies Love scrupulously avoids judgment, or for that matter analysis of any sort. In this treatment, Imelda is forever the twinkly-eyed little girl, even when she's thrust into autocratic womanhood; and her husband, Ferdinand, progresses no further than talk-of-the-town heartthrob, whether he's on the rise, in decline, or somewhere in between. When there are confrontations, they're captured secretly on tape or rumored about in the streets; sweeping social changes unfold beyond closed palace doors while more important things are going on.

You're given no inkling of the true scope of history beyond it being what happens around Imelda and Ferdinand. We're just supposed to swoon at their appearances on magazine covers and in news reports, and not much else. This speaks a great deal about the servility of the masses, and how easy it is to placate those who don't pay attention. But don't plan on learning much about who either person is, or what their contributions were to the world they helped erect and later bring down. That they presided over great change, and were eventually airlifted away from it by helicopter, is apparently all you need to know.

But that's thin gruel for a musical, and even running just a svelte 95 minutes, Here Lies Love struggles to justify its existence as a story. Addictive as the songs are (and the government should probably classify the title number as a controlled substance), and despite the urgency with which they're handled, they always remain thoroughly within the Millennium milieu, and don't expand on the people or story we're supposed to be following. If they don't exactly encourage one-dimensionality, nor do they discourage it. Narrative isn't unwanted, per se, but it is incidental.

This makes it difficult for the headliners, all of whom have returned from the previous engagement, to find enough footholds for their portrayals. As Imelda, Ruthie Ann Miles does not convince at every point along the woman's journey; she's superb, and heartbreaking, as the young girl with aspirations beyond her grasp, but doesn't quite show how she morphs into the scheming older version. Jose Llana brings a compelling suaveness to Ferdinand on his way up, but has trouble maintaining consistency of character when he fades more into the background. And both struggle to fill in the emotional gaps of what happens to them whenever we're looking somewhere else.

Melody Butiu makes Imelda's childhood friend, Estrella, into a sympathetic symbol of what ambition is all too willing to leave behind, and she brings a stunning depth of feeling to the scene in which Imelda bribes Estrella into keeping quiet about the girlhood that doesn't match official reports. And Conrad Ricamora is simply dazzling as Ninoy Aquino, the Marcos's chief opponent; more than anyone else, Ricamora brings a fire to his character that transcends the writing, and shows how sensuality, a hunger for power, and a latent humanity can fuse into a flesh-and-blood being, even on the dance floor.

Otherwise, the only real tangible life is courtesy of director Alex Timbers, who delivers a truly thrilling club date that reinforces the creativity and resourcefulness he deploys like few other first-tier names currently in the business. (An equally electric, but quite different, implementation of his vision of organically in-motion musical theatre can currently be seen on Broadway in Rocky.) He insists on the constant movement of each production element — including the audience, none of whom are allowed to sit — to create a pageant of theatrical excess that's as exhausting as it is exhilarating.

He has expert help, too, from choreographer Annie-B Parson, who's given the clubbers just the right era-clutching, pastiche-kissed choreography; the interlocking and overlapping platforms of David Korins's set, which effortlessly reconfigure into stages, stairs, and fashion walkways; Clint Ramos's costumes, which span the full of range of Imelda's personal evolution, from simple frocks to elegant gowns to sequin-choked excess elsewhere; Justin Townsend's throbbing rave lighting; M.L. Dogg and Cody Spencer's sound design; and Peter Nigrini's imaginative projections.

Every bit of it is essential to making Here Lies Love one of the most dynamic shows you'll see this year, just as it was last year. But it's not enough to add second and third dimensions to what's, at best, paper-thick biography — or justify a return visit if you've been down this road before. Just as an evening at a nightclub is limited in how it's able to raise your spirits, a superlative production can only do so much for a so-so show.


Here Lies Love
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets and performance schedule at publictheater.org