Imelda, played here with chin-out imperiousness and loads of charisma by Arielle Jacobs, is not so much the evening’s hard target as its soft focus. The musical, chiefly by songwriters Byrne and Fatboy Slim but also including music by Tom Gandey and José Luis Pardo, charts Imelda’s iron-willed rise from rural beauty queen to self-anointed royalty alongside her ruthless husband, Ferdinand. He’s portrayed with magnetic machismo by Jose Llana.
Conrad Ricamora, in an equally dynamic turn as the doomed Ninoy Aquino, the onetime lover of Imelda who becomes the nation’s leading dissident, completes a psycho-political triangle that carries us briskly through five decades in their intertwining biographies. (The one-act musical clocks in at 90 breathless minutes.) But, just as in real life, in this tale, it is the ubiquitous, materialistic Imelda who seizes on our imaginations. Like with the Eva Perón of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Evita,” Imelda’s needs and appetites are so gargantuan that we are transfixed by the scale of her self-delusion.
“Why don’t you love me?” Jacobs sings desperately to the world, in one of the final numbers of the show’s about two dozen. This is not the somewhat buffoonish, attention-seeking clothes horse who cropped up regularly in the tabloids before and after the 1980s uprising that forced the Marcoses to flee the Philippines. In fact, no shoes were satirized in the making of “Here Lies Love” (a phrase of Imelda’s own devising.) While Byrne, Fatboy Slim and director Alex Timbers don’t offer a sympathetic portrait of Imelda, this is not an editorial cartoonist’s vision of a monster, either. She, for instance, gives the unjustly jailed Aquino the opportunity to escape to the United States.
David Byrne discusses his new Broadway show
The show’s reductive politics — clarified to some degree by the song of revolution, sung by Moses Villarama, that ends the production — is one of its least compelling attributes. Indeed, as it spends a lot of time compassionately examining the roots of Imelda’s vaulting ambitions, the musical could have been subtitled “The Seduction of Imelda Marcos.”
The show’s own ambition, though, is to find a hot, modern beat for heated political events, the way Webber and Tim Rice accomplished in their sung-through “Jesus Christ Superstar” and Lin-Manuel Miranda did for “Hamilton.” And Timbers, a Tony winner for the splashy ministrations of “Moulin Rouge!,” knows how to keep things moving.
The inspiration is that ’80s den of Manhattan decadence, Studio 54, which the real-life Imelda would frequent. Under a golden disco ball, stagehands traffic-cop the spectators around Korins’s modular, moving platforms. A screen at one end of the hall, consisting strikingly of a jigsaw of smaller video screens, flashes Peter Nigrini’s eye-popping projections: animated tropical scenes, footage of the real Ferdinand and Imelda, live feeds from roving camera people on the floor.
The projections extend along narrow panels on all four walls of the disco, like multiple Times Square news zippers. There are never fewer than five places for a theatergoer to look, but rather than sensory overload, the achievement is true fulfillment of the aims of immersive theater. Smartly, too, Timbers dispatches the lead actors and members of the splendid ensemble — all of them of Filipino heritage — to all corners of the theater, including a vast section of balcony-level seats, arranged stadium style.
Costume designer Clint Ramos dresses the women expressively in the colors of tropical flora — saturated pinks, reds, oranges and blues — and the martyred Aquino in saintly white. In a golden gown, Jasmine Forsberg has a rhapsodic acid-queen moment in “Men Will Do Anything,” and for a limited part of the run, Lea Salonga is contributing a potent cameo as Aquino’s mother, Aurora, singing the elegiac “Just Ask the Flowers.”
I was glad I chose a spot on the floor. Things do get a bit crowded, although nowhere near as claustrophobic as the original downtown version of the show in 2013. Fatboy Slim’s jolting tunes, melodic and insistent, send scintillating vibrations through your nervous system; you can’t help but plug into the production’s current. Since the show is more party than parable, the management might want to consider a few more minutes of music after the curtain calls. Because “Here Lies Love” is the kind of stimulant that makes you believe you could dance all night.
Here Lies Love, music by David Byrne, Fatboy Slim, Tom Gandey and José Luis Pardo; lyrics by Byrne. Directed by Alex Timbers. Choreography, Annie-B Parson; sets, David Korins; costumes, Clint Ramos; lighting, Justin Townsend; sound, M.L. Dogg and Cody Spencer; projections, Peter Nigrini. With Melody Butiu. About 90 minutes. At Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, New York. herelieslovebroadway.com.