A young, beautiful woman moves to the big city. She meets an older, rising politician. She becomes First Lady and professes an interest in the people, even as the glittering excesses of her lifestyle spark criticism. Her husband is criticised for corruption. Such is the story told in a delightful, inventive new musical production at the Public Theater – and no, this isn’t a revival of Evita.
It is, rather, Here Lies Love, a fast-paced show about Imelda Marcos, former First Lady of the Philippines. With concept and lyrics by David Byrne, music by Byrne and Fatboy Slim (aka Norman Cook), and a refreshing nightclub-set staging by Alex Timbers, in which audience members are constantly on the move to avoid sliding platforms, the show exposes just how hidebound are the musicals that have opened during Broadway’s frenetic spring season uptown.
Though in some ways a slick, musically superficial confection, Here Lies Love – the title derives from the phrase Marcos, now 83, wants inscribed on her tombstone – tells a story that is often far from sweet. In addition to the Evita parallels, the narrative takes us to the moment when Ferdinand Marcos, president of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986 and Imelda’s husband, was ousted from power.
The chronology of the show, which follows a 2010 star-filled concept album by Byrne and Cook, is sometimes sketchy. Because there is scant dialogue, and because Byrne’s kicky lyrics establish mood more than they advance story, we must rely on the titles, photos and videos projected on walls to tell us where we are in this 90-minute evening.
If those production elements, harnessed by first-rate director Timbers, can be overloading, they are also clever. They enhance what the actors, led by the touching Ruthie Ann Miles as Imelda and the charismatic Jose Llana as Ferdinand, are doing. It is, inevitably, a challenge to compete with the real thing: video footage of Mrs Marcos bopping along at one of her jet-set affairs is almost unbearably kitsch.
With its catchy mix of emotional ballads and disco ditties, Here Lies Love offers a percolating beat, tremendous flow and visual beauties led by Clint Ramos’s costumes. The floral dresses alone could inspire a collection at H&M. Not to mention the footwear: Imelda famously owned up to 2,700 pairs of shoes – a fun fact that this musical cheekily omits.