Tuesday, April 30, 2013

REVIEWED: Here Lies Love

 When I first applied to the Public for a job, the show I was most excited during the season was this show, Here Lies Love. Being Filipino, I grew up with stories of the Marcos regime, my grandmother having lived in the Philippines during that time. She would tell me and my cousins all about Imelda, her famous shoe collection, this charming Ferdinand Marcos, how they stole so much, lived so extravagantly, and yet were still in power. This show was a crazy meeting of history, fairy tale, and theatre for me. The intersection made me a little emotional several times, in fact.

What strikes most people about Here Lies Love is the inevitable comparison to the musical Evita. Eva Peron and Imelda Marcos themselves have drawn the same comparison: Both impoverished, lower-class daughters, both moved to the nation's capital and were noticed for their beauty, thereby positioning themselves to meet their eventual husbands, who also happened to be the eventual leaders of the nation. Following their husbands' respective ascensions the throne, these first ladies transcended the role of wife to be spiritual leaders of their nations, and the pretty face of the government to all the poor and working classes.

The difference in reality was that Eva died young, of cancer, Imelda on the other hand, fled in exile, only to return and even become president of the country that once threatened to overthrow her husband. One can only wonder at the course of history had Evita lived.

The difference in the musicals is the opinion of the writers. While it's pretty obvious that Evita is written rather backhandedly to criticize the first lady of Argentina, the same cannot be said for the Fatboy Slim and David Byrne, who seem to have the same odd reverence that the Philippines itself has for the Iron Butterfly, Imelda Marcos. The musical takes the characters at face value, reflecting the historical events, and only going so far with the intimate numbers, and really only with Imelda. But they are all logical jumps from A to B, rather than to D or E. You would think this makes them less interesting, but it somehow works.
Imelda is a young girl growing up in Leyte, which is mostly poor, but she has a boyfriend, a young politician named "Ninoy" Aquino. But when he dumps her for his career, she wins a local beauty contest and soon ends up in the nation's capital of Manila. She meets a senator, Ferdinand Marcos, who is charming and handsome. He is also on the road to higher political aspirations, but he wants her by his side and so they get married, have their honeymoon, and return for the campaign trail, which Marcos takes by a landslide. Imelda is overwhelmed with her feelings of love, her newfound fame and recognition, and traveling the world and indulging in excess. Many in the nation are unhappy with the Marcos regime however, particularly Ninoy himself who has grown to lead the opposition to overthrow the Marcoses. This leads to an invoking of martial law, the assassination of Ninoy, and the evacuation of the Marcoses to America.
Like I said, what I enjoy about Here Lies Love, whether it's true or not, is that Imelda is a simple girl with no political aspirations, who finds herself involved and eventually entangled in it. She begins to embrace her role fully, and even bypasses her husband in one of the more empowering moments of the show. Her character is one we can all get behind and love. We're rooting for her a lot of the time, whether she is against everyone or not, even in her colder moments towards the end of the show. Ruthie Ann Miles, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Ms. Marcos, also brings her a lot of heart and a quiet fortitude to the character. She has what amounts to the only real arc of the main characters of the show, and it's a dynamic journey, full of ups and downs.

The rest of the cast is great too, great dancers, great singers. Conrad Ricamora as Ninoy Aquino and Jose Llana as Ferdinand Marcos are appropriately charismatic and can effectively draw physical and political connection to their real life counterparts. Ninoy is energetic and infectious, Marcos pulls you in with his hypnotic and engaging stare.

The set, which is a completely immersive Filipino disco club, surrounds the audience on the dance floor, with multiple moving elements, projection screens, fog, and dynamic lighting. You feel like you're in Manila, partying with the citizens, as you're subtly propagandized. The screens are used effectively, alternating between animation and narration to real world news footage and other stock, like the Marcos wedding.

It's shocking to realize there's only about eight or nine ensemble members because the costume changes and entrances and exits happen at rapid-fire pace, like a three-ring circus of set transformations, character swaps, and misdirection. Even watching from the balcony and seeing the crew and cast alike running around behind the scenes, the piece looks to move so smoothly.

The costumes are all great, I particularly love the New York set of costumes for Imelda's visit to the States, and many of Imelda's are authentic, ones I've seen in pictures from the news.

As I said before, there's a lot of oddly emotional moments for me as I watched the show. Ninoy's first number repeats the lyric, "I am a child of the Philippines" and there was an odd sort of patriotic pride that shot through me, while in Ferdinand's first number, the projection screens fade from his news broadcast to a shot of Imelda standing on the opposite end of the theater, as Ferdinand sings the line, "the queen of hearts could be a perfect 10," and Ruthie, with her resemblance, and me, obsessed with historical context numbers like this (like "The Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square" from Ragtime) the whole moment just gave me goosebumps. In Ninoy's final number, when he is assassinated, the projection screens show actual footage from the day he was returning to the Philippines and was shot on the tarmac. It's upsetting, frightening, and one of the more unsettling moments of the show.

It's not all perfect, of course. The show is sung-through, with a mostly disco-inspired backing and while a lot of the numbers are very cool, it gets repetitive, but that might be a criticism more of disco than the play itself.
The depth of the show, as I mentioned, is pretty shallow. While I got an emotional kick from it, knowing the story so well, I think it lacks something for a more casual viewer. They will be engrossed by the ridiculous set and the ridiculous talent of the cast, and of course they will love Imelda because of Ruthie, but we never quite grasp all the sides of the political turmoil, and that's only because we are literally getting every side of it, with Ninoy continually being featured as counterpoint, and no other characters offering insight into Imelda and Ferdinand, the rest of the cast reduced (though I mean that as positively as possible) to a Greek chorus of support.
But any inconsistencies or lag in the plot or flow are forgiven because of the game cast and their enthusiasm, like Ninoy's own, is just infectious.

I really support the idea of this show going to Broadway, the added bonus of Filipino and Asian actors being utilized in stories topical to us notwithstanding. I think it's a fun show, with some memorable numbers, wonderful choreography, and some artistic endeavors I haven't seen Broadway tackle. Its presentation, style, and delivery are ambitious and I can't think of anything in recent memory that I can draw immediate comparison against it. I hope it finds its way there, and I hope this group does the cast album.

Dance with Imelda!