Theater review by David Cote. Public Theater (see Off Broadway). Concept and lyrics by David Byrne. Music by Byrne and Fatboy Slim. Dir. Alex Timbers. With ensemble cast. 1hr 30mins. No intermission.
“This ain’t no party / This ain’t no disco / This ain’t no foolin’ around,” sings David Byrne in “Life During Wartime,” the 1979 Talking Heads single that superimposes Third World political terror on East Village hipster malaise. More than 30 years later, the surreal mash-up of foreign and banal recurs in Byrne’s ecstatic and dynamic first musical, about the rise and fall of former Filipino first lady Imelda Marcos. Here Lies Love is most definitely a party, in a sort of disco, and while there’s plenty of fooling around, the piece cannily demonstrates how the pleasure principle dovetails with revolutionary zeal. Queens may dance while the people starve, but the mob has some fancy steps of its own.
Alex Timbers’s immersive, environmental staging of Byrne’s score (really, a bookless concept album released in 2010) turns the Public’s LuEsther space into a crowded, beat-filled discotheque, with audiences milling around rolling platforms as actors dance and sing above. Byrne’s songs, with lyrics based on actual Marcos quotes and augmented by sassy beats from Fatboy Slim, chart the rise of Imelda (Ruthie Ann Miles) from childhood poverty to right-hand woman of dictator Ferdinand Marcos (Jose Llana). Along the way, Imelda ditches her childhood pal, Estrella (Melody Butiu), a nagging reminder of tougher days, and enjoys the glamorous life—even while protesting that she does it all for the poor. In real life, by the time the Marcoses were driven out of office by a peaceful mass movement in 1986, they had embezzled billions.
Since the real Imelda loved disco and New York’s ’70s nightlife, Byrne fills the score with funky, danceable numbers, given groovy life by choreographer Annie-B Parson. Timbers and his designers provide historical background with documentary video and a sprinkling of found text. The picture that emerges shows a power couple—one deeply corrupt, the other highly corruptible—who exploited their people better than any imperialist ever could. The title comes from a phrase that treacly demagogue Imelda said could be her epitaph. But I think her syntax was off. She really meant: Here love’s a lie.
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