Alex Timbers’ extraordinarily inventive direction of “Here Lies Loves” makes this musical worth seeing. He has reconfigured the gargantuan Broadway Theatre into a disco with its own Studio 54 balcony for those theatergoers who like to sit down when they see a show. For everybody else, they can stand (and often dance) in the theater’s orchestra, where all the seats have been removed to make room for a number of moving stages upon which the actors perform.
I had seen “Here Lies Love” in its world premiere at a far smaller space, at the Public Theater in 2013, and sitting down there was not an option. When those stage platforms moved, you had to move to make way for them. I recall having found a spot where I thought I could watch the show leaning against a wall, but no such luck. Stagehands told me to keep moving. Indeed, I left the Public that night before seeing the downfall and exile of Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos, the ostentatious and very unsympathetic subjects of “Here Lies Love.”
The three words of the title were Imelda’s humble choice of verbiage for her own tombstone. David Korins’s scenic design for “Here Lies Love” on Broadway is far more expansive than the bare-bones production at the Public, and it is immensely enhanced by Peter Nigrini’s jazzy projection designs of vintage photos, documentaries and animated graphics that literally engulf the theater.
Is it the most radical overhaul of a Broadway theater ever? No, that award would have to go to Hal Prince’s 1974 staging of “Candide” at the same venue. There, Prince and his designers created an in-the-round stage where the aisles were turned into meandering paths that led to a variety of performing spaces. Regarding the award for Most Radical Makeover of a Theater, “Here Lies Love” will have to settle for the runner-up prize.
Still, the overhaul warrants a trip to the Broadway Theatre.
Playing Imelda Marcos, Arielle Jacobs effectively goes from sweet country girl to the Evita of the Philippines, complete with too much hair and too many costumes (by Clint Ramos). Conrad Ricamora galvanizes as Imelda’s old boyfriend and future political nemesis, Ninoy Aquino, who found himself gunned down upon his return to the Philippines in 1983 after imprisonment and, later, exile in the United States. Rounding out the lead performers are Jose Llana, playing Ferdinand Marcos, and Lea Salonga, playing Aquino’s mother.
Two decades ago, Salonga and Llana were the leads in David Henry Hwang’s radical and poorly reviewed retooling of “Flower Drum Song,” which now looks like a classic compared to the damage Aaron Sorkin inflicted on the recent revival of “Camelot.” In “Here Lies Love,” Llana and Salonga are a vocal phenomenon. How many performances have they clocked in between that “Song” and this “Love”? Vocally, they haven’t aged a day, and they continue to look just great, too.
“Here Lies Love,” beyond the brilliant stage craft, is all about singing, since it is based on David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s 2010 concept album of the same title. (Additional songs are by Tom Gandey and Jose Luis Pardo.) There’s very little spoken dialogue, and most of what we get there are original recordings that feature the voices of Imelda, Ferdinand and others.
No book writer is credited, although Byrne receives a “concept” credit along with “music and lyrics.” The score is tuneful in a generic jingly-jangly sort of way, which ultimately becomes tiresome in its extreme repetition over 90 minutes. The life story of these two Filipino dictators is handled with efficiency, if not much finesse.
Imelda is a virgin bride who soon resorts to drugs and clothes before becoming a total tyrant who turns on old friends. Ferdinand is treated as an afterthought, a man who has affairs with blondes and then gets out of Imelda’s way when health fails him.
No, “Here Lies Love” isn’t about Ferdinand or Imelda or even a bygone Philippines. It’s all about Alex Timbers.