I saw the new musical Here Lies Love recently at The Public Theater, and found it reasonably diverting, if shallow and repetitive. But the reviews were overwhelmingly positive, even ecstatic, and the show has been extended multiple times, most recently until June 30th.
Again, I don't get it.
I didn't have a chance to catch Here Lies Love last summer at its sold-out run at Mass MoCa, but I heard it was going to move to the Public, so I figured I'd wait until the New York run.
I had heard that the show had a score by David Byrne (formerly of The Talking Heads) and somebody named Fatboy Slim. (I figured with a name like that he would be a rapper, but it turns out he's a British DJ, musician, and producer. Go figure.) I had also heard that the show was about Imelda Marcos, former First Lady of the Philippines, and that it was directed by one of the most in-demand directors today, Alex Timbers.
So, I was intrigued with, if not all that excited about, Here Lies Love. I had also heard that the show would feature immersive staging, in this case taking place in a Filipino dance club circa the 1970s. I'm not really a fan of immersive theater, so I was pleased to discover that there were a limited number of box seats, poised above the throng, one of which I was thankfully able to secure. I mean, I get the whole idea of setting it in a dance club: Imelda's
life was to a great extent one big party, filled with celebrities, world
leaders and the jet set from across the world. But that doesn't mean I have to spend 90 minutes bouncing up and down and being herded by a bunch of hired handlers. (My one regret here was not being able to hobnob with David Byrne, who was bopping around with the rest of crowd the night I saw the show.)
Here Lies Love really goes all out in providing what appears to be an authentic dance club experience, including multimedia projections, a spinning mirror ball, and a DJ spinning mad jams, or whatever, and the overall sensory experience is visceral and infectious. What the show fails to provide is a compelling narrative and believable characterizations. There are some genuinely stunning moments, particularly when the narrative progresses as far as the events surrounding Benigno Aquino and his tragic demise. But up to that point, it's mostly a by-the-numbers "simple country girl who has a dream" narrative that is far too reminiscent of Evita, and lacking in that show's compositional and storytelling flair.
The mostly sung-through show follows Imelda from her life as a young girl, through her beauty-pageant days, to her marriage to Ferdinand Marcos and years as First Lady. It makes for a fairly efficient history lesson, but it doesn't really give us a sense of who these people were, nor why they were motivated to do what they did. Apparently, Imelda dated Aquino when they were younger. When Aquino speaks out against the corruption and graft in the Marcos regime, he is thrown into prison. After he's been incarcerated for seven years, Imelda arranges for him to escape. Although we see bits of their earlier relationship, we don't really have a sense of why Imelda would allow this man to escape, especially when he is clearly either going to be dangerous to the regime or be killed in the process.
I wasn't really sure what to make of the Here Lies Love, mostly because the point of view wasn't clear. Is it meant to be satirical, or serious, or perhaps a bit of both? The show portrays some of Imelda's excesses, as well as hints of the human-rights abuses under Ferdinand and his autocratic rule, but I didn't come away knowing anything more than I did by watching the news in the 1980s, when the Marcoses were ousted from power.
The most effective part of the show, both in terms of the narrative flow and the immersive staging, was during and after the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, in which the hall full of dancing audience members suddenly becomes a funeral procession and a nation in mourning for the fallen Filipino hero. Here the show reveals what it could have been: a poignant and visceral document of a fascinating woman and the people around her at a pivotal moment in one country's history.
(One finale note, albeit a trivial one: a musical about Imelda Marcos and not a word about shoes? Clearly there were no gay men involved.)