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Here Lies Love

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Ruthie Ann Miles and Jose Llana.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Any regular showgoer knows that, due to the emotions or intensity involved, theatre can be exhausting, but rarely is that more true than with the new musical at The Public Theater, Here Lies Love. Unlike most shows, which even if they involve "audience participation" or call themselves an "immersive experience" still let the audience just sit and absorb, this high-energy outing will have you doing at least as much blocking as the actors.

That's because Talking Heads's David Byrne, who conceived the evening, wrote the lyrics, and with Fatboy Slim composed the music (Tom Gandey and J Pardo are credited with "additional music"), and director Alex Timbers (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) have crafted less a traditional show than a rollicking night at a dance club. As part of that, they have decreed that you will be on your feet, following around (or, depending on your predilections, avoiding) the action for the proceedings' full 90 minutes.

This includes a fair amount of walking around the space, dodging set pieces (costumed security guards ensure you don't get squashed by a spinning platform), and even, yes, a bit of Annie-B Parson's choreography. (Rest assured, it's simple step-to-the-right-step-to-the-left-raise-the-roof kind of stuff.)

If you're initially confused about what exactly any of this has to do with the show's subject, Imelda Marcos, the controversial first lady of the Philippines who with her husband Ferdinand was driven out of power in 1986 after 21 years, it doesn't take long to learn the answer. The Philippines, our "DJ" explains early on, has long been obsessed with all things from the United States, so telling a story to that audience using a vernacular familiar to it makes a certain sort of sense.

Thankfully, it doesn't become more confusing as the show zips along. We're first introduced to Imelda (Ruthie Ann Miles), who grew up in poverty with her best friend Estrella (Melody Butiu) before romancing the charismatic politician Ninoy Aquino (Conrad Ricamora) and then the much more successful Ferdinand (Jose Llana). He takes her to the president's mansion, and then into infamy by imposing martial law and other nefarious policies on his people.

Ruthie Ann Miles with the cast.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

This all unfolds at three times the speed of real life, with Timbers's breathless rave-up staging and Byrne and Fatboy Slim's kinetic, near-continuous compositions catapulting us through three decades of personal and professional politics. As if to underscore how all-encompassing, and even suffocating, the Marcos' rise and fall were, Timbers has utilized every spare inch of space, from the floor to those constantly moving walkways (the industrial-minded set designer is David Korins) and eventually rolling staircases. This is a show that is, literally, all over the place.

Unfortunately, the same is also true of the story, which has not received the same kind of pointed, purposeful treatment the staging has. For all the energy of the presentation, and the writers' dedication to using actual news reports, interviews, and public speeches as the direct inspiration for the libretto, very little about Imelda or the people around her is ever made to seem remarkable, let alone naturally theatrical.

Imelda lies her way to the top and then turns her back on Estrella when called on her deceptions, but otherwise makes precious few dynamic choices of her own. So much of Imelda's world blossoms around her that she frequently comes across as a wallflower in her own disco saga. She even vanishes entirely from the story in its final minutes, leaving the final number to be a quiet protest trio, just when one would most expect her to appear and weigh in on what her journey meant to her.

That such moments are notably absent from most of Here Lies Love is what separates this work from its most obvious spiritual predecessor, Evita. In Andrew Lloyd-Webber's musical, Eva Peron was unquestionably the main character and the main fuel source for her own destiny—the men in her life, even including the man who eventually made her first lady of Argentina, were nothing more than pawns of varying degrees of influence.

Because Imelda is much more passive, she's less involving. Except during the title song (an addictively liquid ballad), her brief embodiment of steely determination after discovering her husband's affair, and a final enraged confrontation with Estrella, she demonstrates no guts at all, and often threatens to fade into the chorus of women around her. That's made difficult primarily by Miles, who's luminous and likable almost to a fault: Adorable in her earlier scenes and only a bit more resolute later, you never get a steady glimpse of the treacherous power player we're supposed to believe was a major force behind the government.

The boyishly ingratiating Llana is similarly difficult to accept as the opportunistic Marcos, and he plays his role so sympathetically that it's impossible to believe he deserves what he gets. Considerably better positioned are Butiu, who convinces you of the pain Estrella feels at having lost her friend in an achingly honest performance, and Ricamora, who begins as a dismissive one-dimensional career politician and only gradually grows to fill the heroic status into which he's thrust.

As for everything else, there's no shortage of color to be found in the rest of the design (the costumes are by Clint Ramos, the lights by Justin Townsend, the lush and fluid projections by Peter Nigrini) or the songs, which are sufficiently infectious in the moment as they blend a Philippines worldview with American stylings. That they, like you, are kept in constant motion throughout is a good thing as well: Without that, the swirl of history as Here Lies Love documents it would too often spin straight to a standstill.

Here Lies Love
Through June 2
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Running Time: 85 minutres
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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