Review: Dancing With Dictators in David Byrne’s ‘Here Lies Love’

It’s the applause — including my own — I find troubling.

Not that there isn’t plenty to praise in “Here Lies Love,” the immersive disco-bio-musical about Imelda Marcos that opened on Thursday at the Broadway Theater. The infernally catchy songs by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, performed by a tireless and inspired all-Filipino cast, will have you clapping whether you want to or not. Their chunky beats, abetted by insistent dance motivators, may even prompt you to bop at your seat — if you have one.

Because the real star of this show is the astonishing architectural transformation of the theater itself, by the set designer David Korins. Opened in 1924 as a movie palace, more lately the home of “King Kong” and “West Side Story,” the Broadway has now been substantially gutted, its nearly 1,800 seats reduced to about 800, with standing room for another 300 in the former orchestra section and a 42-inch disco ball dead center.

The folks upstairs, if not the mostly younger standees below, will surely recognize the visual reference to Studio 54, the celebrity nightclub where Marcos, the first lady of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986, danced away the last decade of her reign while impoverishing her people. That she would probably adore the over-emphatic atmosphere of “Here Lies Love” — with its lurid lighting by Justin Townsend, skittering projections by Peter Nigrini and earsplitting sound by M.L. Dogg and Cody Spencer — is, however, equivocal praise.

For here we are, at the place where irony and meta-messaging form a theatrical-historical knot that can’t be picked apart. Which is why, as you clap, you should probably wonder what for.

Is it for Imelda (Arielle Jacobs), the beauty queen who rose from “hand-me-downs and scraps” to become the fashion-plate wife of the Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos? Is it for the ruthless Ferdinand himself (Jose Llana)? (His landslide election in 1965 elicited some Pavlovian cheers the night I saw the show.) Or is it for Ninoy Aquino (Conrad Ricamora), the opposition leader who was Imelda’s former beau? (Having spurned her in their youth, he was later assassinated by forces thought to be close to Ferdinand’s regime.) All get equivalent star treatment here.

The confusion of sympathies is just where Byrne and the director Alex Timbers want us. Avoiding the near-hagiography of “Evita” and yet unwilling to bank a commercial production on a totally hateful character, they aim for a middle ground that doesn’t exist, yet mostly hit it anyway. Their Imelda is a victim of poverty and mistreatment, dim despite her cunning and innocent by reason of inanity. When Filipinos fully turn against her during the People Power revolution of 1986, she is more mystified than crushed. “Why don’t you love me?” she sings.

We know the answer: The string of her outrages, even apart from her husband’s, seems literally endless. She did not retire from public office until 2019, and her son, Bongbong, is now president.

But “Here Lies Love” — the title taken from an epitaph she proposed for herself — tempers the atrocities with the pleasure of its songs. Jacobs, a Broadway Jasmine in “Aladdin,” gets the catchiest ones, and delivers them well, if without the emotional nuance Ruthie Ann Miles brought to the role a decade earlier when the show had a developmental run at the Public Theater.

To be fair, the material steers as far from emotion as possible, no matter how many times the word “love” is used. Byrne’s characteristic idiom — which feeds disco, folk and pop through an art rock filter — is too cool for that, and his lyrics, perhaps because they are based on public utterances of the real-life figures, reject psychology almost entirely. They are often thus too banal to serve the usual purpose of songs in musicals; instead of developing character internally they suggest it externally with a torrent of catchphrases. “It takes a woman to do a man’s job,” Imelda sings blankly upon assuming power from the sickly Ferdinand.

Without a vivid inner life to inflect such clichés, it’s hard to wring anything from them except a cringe. The beamish Ricamora and the scowling Llana, returning from the earlier production, get around the problem with their charisma, and Lea Salonga, in the cameo role of Aquino’s mother, turns “Just Ask the Flowers,” sung at Ninoy’s funeral, into a powerful if perplexing anthem through sheer vocal bravura.

Still, a musical not centered on feelings is a strange thing. Where another show might attempt to squeeze the relationship between Imelda and Ninoy for drama, it is merely a lump of undigested fact here. And Imelda’s infamous collection of state-financed shoes goes unmentioned, which is like mounting “Evita” without the Dior dress.

To compensate, or double down, Timbers emphasizes pure pageantry in his staging. The actors often perform on an array of moving platforms that transport the action to various parts of the theater while incidentally sweeping the standees into new configurations. (Guides in pink jumpsuits with airport-style light wands keep them from getting mowed down.) You are left to draw your own conclusions about how crowds, whether in Manila or Manhattan, respond to being pushed around for too long and for apparently arbitrary reasons. There’s a reason affiliations and uprisings are often called movements.

No surprise then that the most expressive element in “Here Lies Love” (along with Clint Ramos’s costumes, which also move beautifully) is the choreography by Annie-B Parson. Based on small hand gestures and large traffic patterns, it suggests a fuller spectrum of human engagement than the otherwise narrowly focused and sometimes mechanical production achieves.

Is it wrong to seek that engagement more fully? (Or as Imelda sings: “Is it a sin to love too much?”) For most of its 90 intermission-less minutes, “Here Lies Love” finesses the question, preferring to be treated as anything — an art object, a dance party — besides what it is. In that way, it recalls Byrne’s Broadway concert “American Utopia,” on which Timbers and Parson also collaborated. But that show, which had no story, needed only to be sleek and enjoyable to score its points.

“Here Lies Love” bets that glamour can make up for narrative — or, rather, that in a show about the dangers of political demagogy, glamour itself is the narrative. It’s a case of form follows function into the fire. We are drawn to cultural and political excitement in much the same, often dangerous way.

Perhaps the irony of making a musical about that is more viscerally appreciable down on the dance floor. It was for me at the Public, where almost everyone had to stand and be part of the story, not observers of it. (There were only 42 seats.) And perhaps, 10 years later, with our own politics looking a lot more like the Marcoses’, no one can afford to keep a distance.

In any case, on Broadway, it’s not until the gorgeous last song, “God Draws Straight,” that the material matches the movement in a way that reaches the balcony. Led by Moses Villarama, and based on comments by eyewitnesses to the peaceful 1986 revolution, it acknowledges the moral superiority of its real heroes — the Philippine people — in the only way a musical can: by giving it beautiful voice. Finally, it’s OK to applaud.

Here Lies Love
At the Broadway Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

Jesse Green is the chief theater critic for The Times. His latest book is “Shy,” with and about the composer Mary Rodgers. He is also the author of a novel, “O Beautiful,” and a memoir, “The Velveteen Father.” More about Jesse Green

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