Legit Review: 'Here Lies Love'

Musical from David Byrne and Fatboy Slim is a danceable dive into Imelda Marcos' history

Those crazy people at the Public really know how to have fun. “Here Lies Love,” an exuberant musical inspired by the life of Imelda Marcos and set to the pounding disco beat of a score by David Byrne (head Head of Talking Heads) and DJ Fatboy Slim, is just what we need at the end of a so-so season — something to celebrate. Taking his cue from the fact that the onetime First Lady of the Philippines was a disco queen, helmer Alex Timbers has transformed dainty Lu Esther Hall into a dance club environment that is pure pleasure pit.

The irresistibly danceable music, which starts with an innocent (not to say saccharine) ballad and whips itself into a disco frenzy, is what tears up the house. But the re-configuration of the deconstructed house has a lot to do with it, too.

Under the design of David Korins, scenes are played on two raised stages at either end of the auditorium, with two sliver stages doing duty on the side walls. Expanding into the auditorium itself, more playing space materializes on portable platforms that stagehands in pink jumpsuits (Byrne among them, on some nights) move around like building blocks.

To complete the total immersion experience, the audience literally follows the action from place to place, dancing in place for the entire 90 minutes of the show. Those with less stamina can always stand back and just enjoy the chorus boys and girls putting themselves through the paces of Annie-B Parson’s dynamic choreography.

Being a sung-through musical, “Here Lies Love” (the title is Imelda’s choice of an epitaph) can’t tell its tale of the rise and fall of Imelda Marcos (Ruthie Ann Miles, pretty of face and big of voice) in dialogue. But the song lyrics — surprisingly clear above the drums that drive the disco beat — manage to cover plenty of narrative ground.

The violent political history of the Philippines is a matter of public record, and the brutal events leading up to the People Power Revolution that finally drove strongman Ferdinand Marcos (Jose Llana) out of power are efficiently covered by strong songs like “Order 1081″ and “Seven Years.” But some of this “found text” was mined from more personal sources, like Imelda’s testimony about how pluck and beauty, and that magical element she calls “love,” raised “this simple country girl” above her humble station and made her the First Lady of the Philippines.

The book-less show also gets a critical assist from the visual narrative that spools by on video monitors and zipper screens. Peter Nigrini did the outstanding design job on these projections, some of them playful travelogue views, others the record of historic moments when Imelda cavorted with LBJ and Gorbachev and, would you believe, Nixon.

Even the costumes, designed by Clint Ramos, contribute to the narrative. Although nothing is made of Imelda’s shoe fetish, the evolution of her dress style, from peasant dresses to floor-length minks, speaks volumes about the “the Fabulous One” who eventually danced herself into oblivion.

Here Lies Love

(The Public Theater; 158 seats; $94 top) 

A Public Theater presentation of a musical in one act with concept and lyrics by David Byrne, music by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, with additional music by Tom Gandey and J. Pardo. Directed by Alex Timbers. Choreographed by Annie-B Parson.

Sets, David Korins; costumes, Clint Ramos; sound, M.L. Dogg & Cody Spencer; projections, Peter Nigrini; musical supervision; Kimberly Grigsby; production stage manager, Alaina Taylor. Opened April 23, 2013. Reviewed April 21. Running time: ONE HOUR, 30 MIN.

With: Melody Butiu, Jose Llana, Ruthie Ann Miles, Conrad Ricamora, Renee Albulario, Natalie Cortez, Debralee Daco, Joshua Dela Cruz, Kelvin Moon Loh, Jeigh Madjus, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Trevor Salter, Janelle Velasquez.

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