Thursday, September 14, 2023

Review: Here Lies Love

Review of the Saturday, September 9, 2023 evening performance at the Broadway Theatre in New York City. Starring Arielle Jacobs, Jose Llana, Conrad Ricamora and Reanne Acasio. Concept, music and lyrics by David Byrne. Music by Fatboy Slim. Additional music by Tom Gandey and Jose Luis Pardo. Scenic design by David Korins. Costume design by Clint Ramos. Lighting design by Justin Townsend. Projection design by Peter Nigrini. Sound design by M.L. Dogg and Cody Spencer. Choreography by Annie-B Parson. Developed and directed by Alex Timbers. 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Grade: A

There was a moment during Here Lies Love that hit me like a ton of bricks. During one of the many dance-y tunes, we were all on our feet - from stage floor to rear mezzanine - clapping, bouncing, waving our hands in the air, and doing a call and response. Almost immediately upon sitting down, we are reminded of the horrific events of the Marcos regime in the Philippines: graphic photos and statistics surrounded us as a tape of him doing something nefarious played over the sound system. There, in the darkness, I realized that we had been laughing and dancing while a despot was killing his own countrymen. I haven't really stopped thinking about that moment, and it reminded me of Cabaret, and the song "If You Could See Her." In that show, we are drawn in to laugh and cheer the antics of the Emcee dancing with a girl in a gorilla suit. He ends with the line, "She didn't look Jewish at all." Different historical situations, sure, but both shows make this point: if we get too caught up in ourselves and don't pay attention to what is really going on, ruthless leaders will take over. A cautionary tale for 2023 in the United States, right?

As the story of Imelda Marcos plays out in the discotheque setting so brilliantly created by David Korins, lit by Justin Townsend, and surrounding us with a visual cacophony of video and still imagery, along with theatrical projections by Peter Nigrini, one loses all sense of time and place once you enter the Broadway Theatre. It is absolutely stunning to see, and any pictures you have seen do not do it justice. It takes immersive theater to a new level. Clint Ramos' costumes do some pretty creative tricks as well as some really heavy lifting in support of the themes of the show. For me, though, the best technical feat of the evening was M.L. Dogg and Cody Spencer's vibrant sound design. Not a word was missed, and the effects were perfection. Considering all that is going on in this fast 90 minute extravaganza, that is a major accomplishment.

Perhaps the biggest accomplishment here, though, is the logistically tight staging by Alex TimbersThere are so many moving parts, it is hard to imagine the level of rehearsal it must have taken. No stranger to spectacle or unique staging, Timbers has really grown with this piece, going way beyond flashy and creating a series of vignettes fraught with symbolism and building to a tragic, albeit inevitable, conclusion. Together with choreographer Annie-B Parson, whose seamless blend of period styles and Broadway moves are constantly exciting, he has taken great pains to include everyone; there is something to see at all times no matter where you sit or stand. That they have so carefully staged this production with virtually no bias only heightens the dramatic intensity; I found myself oddly invested in some very bad people.

The book and score are, naturally, a big part of its success. 
Told through the pop idioms of disco music, this sweeping epic of love and politics spanning decades has been expertly pared down into 90 minutes of heart-stopping theatrical bliss by the astute lyrics by David Byrne set to a no-skips score by Byrne and Fatboy Slim. The vocal arrangements by Kimberly Grigsby and Justin Levine add layers to each number.

Though many cast members have been with the show through one or more of its prior iterations, the company performs with an urgency and vibrancy as though it was happening for the very first time in front of us. The ensemble is everywhere all at once in this cavernous space, and they are chameleon-like in their ability to change characters in a minute or less.

There are several standouts in the company, including Moses Villarama (above), making his debut as the DJ, who gets the party started and guides the action throughout. But it is when he takes the stage, acoustic guitar in hand, and begins the moving finale, "God Draws Straight" that really shows off his talents. Add him to the list of up and coming Broadway folks to keep an eye on. Reann Acasion brings a lovely solemnity as Aurora Aquino with the powerful funeral processional, "Just Ask the Flowers." As long-suffering maid and confidante to Imelda, Estrella, Melody Butiu (right) earns our sympathies with a moving performance; her grief at being betrayed by someone she has loved for years is palpable.

The trio of leads - Conrad Ricamora as Ninoy Aquino, Jose Llana as Ferdinand Marcos, and Arielle Jacobs as Imelda Marcos - are absolutely spectacular. We saw both Ricamora and Llana at the Public several years ago. Time has been very good for both; their portrayals are richer and more detailed. The result is a fierce dynamic between political and relationship foes. New to the mix is golden-voiced Jacobs who is a revelation here. Her metamorphosis from innocent country girl to the queen of excess is remarkable. We are captivated from the moment she appears, making her fall from grace that much more compelling. By the time she appears Evita-like on a balcony, complete with signature white dress pleading "Why Don't You Love Me?" it feels like cathartic karma.

Top: Arielle Jacobs and Jose Llana
Left: Conrad Ricamora   Right: Jose Llana, Arielle Jacobs & Company

I enjoyed the Public Theater production, but I was leery of how it would be in a much larger space. It is actually much better. Really, Here Lies Love is the best of both worlds for me: it is a fun, ultra-theatrical piece, dazzling and dance-y, but it is also a thought-provoking work with serious themes and something to say about the times in which we live.

NOTE: We sat in row H of the mezzanine on the house right side. We could see at least 95% of the action directly, and what we couldn't see was replicated directly opposite of the area we couldn't see. It was also a great vantage point to see a full stage picture. And there were several moments where the action happened directly in front of us - things people on the floor and VIP seats had to watch on screens. (They were also rush seats that we walked right up to the box office and got for the evening performance, more than an hour after it opened. YMMV.)

📸: M. Murphy and E. Zimmerman

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