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Theatre in Review: Here Lies Love (Broadway Theatre)

Arielle Jacobs and Jose Llana. Photo: Billy Bustamante, Matthew Murphy, and Evan Zimmerman (2023)

An Off-Broadway hit in 2013, Here Lies Love has landed on Broadway, hugely expanded but with its gaudy, glittery, neon-lined heart thoroughly intact. David Byrne and Fatboy Slim's musical traces the rise and fall of Imelda Romualdez, poor girl from the Philippine provinces and sometime beauty queen who, disappointed in love, strikes an alliance with dashing war hero/rising politician Ferdinand Marcos. Styling themselves as youthful, attractive John-and-Jackie style icons, they cruise into the presidential palace, evolving into a crypto-fascist power couple, their spendthrift ways and self-dealing driving the nation to its brink. In a stranger-than-pulp-fiction twist, their most powerful political opponent, Ninoy Aquino, is Imelda's former boyfriend.

It's a tale so stuffed with soap-opera details -- money, celebrity, gossip, adultery, and an unmasking via television talk show -- that Shonda Rhimes would send it back for a rewrite, dismissing it as implausible. Its creators' stroke of genius to realize that a club setting and a disco-meets-karaoke score are the appropriate vehicles for telling their tawdry tale. Some have complained that Here Lies Love glamorizes the Marcoses, an argument that is hard to credit, especially when their crimes pile up during the show's second half. With a narrative that mirrors bad fiction and a leading lady who so fully embraces her own vulgarity, what are writers to do? More to the point, a show that once came across as an amusingly lurid piece of 1980s history now seems unnervingly predictive of our own modern-day politics, with its stripper lawsuits and rape trials, its insurrections and paranoia, all fueled by a cascade of lies.

Stepping into a role that put Ruthie Ann Miles on the map, Arielle Jacobs' Imelda is a starry-eyed innocent, her head stuffed with romantic fantasies; dazzled by Ferdinand during their eleven-day courtship yet stifled in her marriage, she descends into the valley of the dolls (a point underscored by projected images of pills falling like manna from heaven). Increasingly isolated and disgusted by the sex scandal that catches Ferdinand on audio tape with a Z-grade actress, she refashions herself as a steely mother of the nation, embarking on a seemingly endless rainbow tour that takes in the White House and Studio 54. By the time martial law is declared, she casually uses the police to take out her enemies while angrily demanding the adoration of pro-democracy protestors. It's a formidable performance, a total transformation executed in full audience view, powered by often-shattering vocals. The sight of Jacobs, standing under a boulder-sized mirror ball, dressed in a sparkly gown and white fur coat and hoisting a cocktail glass, is a potent symbol of the corruptions of power.

Returning from the original production are Jose Llana and Conrad Ricamora as the men in Imelda's life. Llana makes Ferdinand's sharklike instincts more evident than ever; he's a master media manipulator and serial cheater until he visibly declines under the strain of kidney disease. Ricamora was out at the performance I attended but understudy Aaron Alcaraz was a forceful presence as Ninoy, calling out the Marcoses' plundering ways while the rest of the country starves. (A scene featuring Imelda's clandestine visit to Ninoy in prison, urging him into exile, perfectly captures Imelda's creepy mixture of sentiment and self-interest.) Also fine are Melody Butiu as Imelda's childhood companion, who tells too many truths to survive; Moses Villarama as our DJ and emcee; and Jasmine Forsberg, wielding a piercing belt as Imelda's inner voice. Seeing Here Lies Love in the same theatre where Evita held court for several years creates unavoidable resonances -- what a ladies' lunch she and Imelda might have had! -- and even more evocative is the appearance of Lea Salonga in the theatre where Miss Saigon made her an international star. Salonga, one of the show's co-producers, is temporarily taking on the role of Aurora Aquino, Ninoy's mother, who appears after her son's assassination to deliver the devastating eleven o'clock number "Just Ask the Flowers," with unimpeachable authority.

Director Alex Timbers, whose style is one part Max Reinhardt and one part Billy Rose, is never at a loss for invention but sometimes his talents are expended on empty vessels like Moulin Rouge!, leaving audiences in danger of drowning in glitter. Here, in charge of an enterprise with a solid core, he drives the action to the furthest reaches of the theatre, drawing the audience into the decadent Marcos spectacle. There are moments, particularly a couple of audience-participation dance sequences, when the line between depicting political pandering and, well, pandering, gets awfully blurred -- even when telling the ugly story of a failed state, Timbers frets about giving the audience a good time -- but this is still his greatest achievement to date. Annie-B Parson's choreography adds to the show's nonstop sense of movement.

Certainly, Timbers' design team has effectively expanded the production to fit the Broadway Theatre's vast dimensions. Set designer David Korins' reinvention of the space recalls the heyday of Studio 54 (only two blocks north), providing a constantly shifting layout that allows audience members to experience the show standing or seated. (If you go, I recommend sitting; it's a mob scene on the show floor.) It's a stunning piece of engineering that leaves room for wickedly humorous touches, such as the tacky homemade look of the local beauty pageant where Imelda first attracts notice. Lighting designer Justin Townsend, having placed units in every conceivable position, fills the house with chases, ballyhoos, and crossbeam effects, effectively picking individual performers out of the crowd and providing a burst of stark white sunlight for the sober finale. Projection designer Peter Nigrini's flood of imagery -- film title cards, scratchy television footage, celebrity montages, newspaper headlines, images of grinding poverty, and live capture footage -- often fills in narrative gaps and provides crucial historical context. Clint Ramos' costumes track the evolution of Imelda's elaborate fashion style, aided by Craig Franklin Miller's hair designs. ML Dogg and Cody Spencer's sound design is not for the faint of eardrum, but it is appropriate to the setting and style of music and the lyrics are generally intelligible. (In a nod to the show's nightclub concept, most of the music is recorded, although, following a set-to with the musicians' union, a handful of live players has been added.)

Structured as a song cycle rather than a book musical, Here Lies Love is more interested in the broad sweep of events than in delving into its characters' psychology. (For the record, Byrne is credited with the show's concept, music, and lyrics, with Fatboy Slim onboard as co-composer and additional music by Tom Gandey and José Luis Pardo.) On that level, the score more than succeeds, especially the insinuating title tune, which constitutes Imelda's first attempt at self-mythologizing; "Eleven Days," which details her whirlwind romance with Ferdinand; "Why Don't You Love Me?", her outraged, hectoring inversion of "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina;" the moving "Gate 37," which ends in Ninoy's murder; and the startlingly simple and quiet "God Draws Straight," delivered by ordinary Filipino citizens on the shaky morning after the Marcoses' flight from the country. In 2013, the show ended on an understated note of triumph; now, we are reminded, the family is back in power, with Ferdinand's son, Bongbong, currently president of the Philippines. As Here Lies Love reminds us, history has an unpleasant way of repeating itself -- a point that, these days, we can't hear often enough. --David Barbour

(26 July 2023)

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