Musicals have always been built on sensory overload -- music, words, dance, spectacle, performances and sheer numbers of performers. That sense of overload has increased in recent years as theatre technology has become more sophisticated and audiences want more spectacle for the amount of money they are shelling out for tickets. Alex Timbers' production of David Byrne and Fatboy Slim's HERE LIES LOVE takes sensory overload to a new level. The Luesther Theatre of the Public Theatre has been turned into a disco complete with loud techno music, lasers and projections. Most of the audience for this interactive show stands (most of the time) on the disco floor where platforms are moved around to create different stage configurations in addition to the stages that surround the audience. The rest of us are in galleries along the sides looking down on the action. Once the show begins, the audience is inundated with the production. Performers pop up everywhere. Sometimes a sung is performed in the midst of the crowd, with the singer's face captured by video cameras and projected on the walls. The cast seems to be constantly changing costumes. At times the audience is asked to become a kind of dancing chorus. It would take a heart of stone not to be taken in by this production, which ends with a singalong of the title song.
HERE LIES LOVE began as a concept album a few years ago, so many in the audience already knew the score to this sung through musical (virtually no dialogue). I didn't, so its richness and variety was a pleasant surprise. The show has everything from big, energetic numbers to lovely ballads, all to a techno accompaniment. No band, only a DJ, supposedly mixing in the dance beats from a synthesizer until the final song performed to an acoustic guitar. I kept thinking that the score would have been just as good with real instruments, but the techno sound was a viable option. The hard working cast couldn't be better. Ruthie Ann Miles even looks like the young Imelda, and Jose Llana and Conrad Ricamora convincingly embody Marcos and Aquino and sing superbly.
OK, so the staging was fascinating, the score was excellent and the performances fine. Why am I not totally impressed? Like BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON, the last musical directed by Alex Timbers at the Public, HERE LIES LOVE is a hip, clever take on history without an interesting point of view toward its material. ANDREW JACKSON brought out the tired cliche of historical figure as rock star. HERE LIES LOVE gave us another first lady to a vicious dictator (shades of EVITA), but what actually was its take on her? She was complicit in the bloody doings of her husband but survived -- in her old age she is still a political force in the Philippines. For some she is still a saint. In this show, Aquino is the good politician who made the mistake of rejecting Imelda's charms early on because she was too tall. Imelda seems virtually clueless ("Why don't they love me?"), though she seems to be greatly responsible for Marcos's initial popularity. By the way, there is no mention of the famous shoe collection.. The show ends with the Marcos's exit from the Manila, though that is far from the end of Imelda's story. Though I succumbed to its immediate sensory pleasures I missed a sense of why Byrne and his colleagues had chosen to write a musical about Imelda Marcos.
HERE LIES LOVE. Public Theatre. May 5, 2013.