There is no dream ballet about designer shoes in Here Lies Love, the new musical about former Filipina First Lady Imelda Marcos, at the Public Theater. And that is a good thing. This infectiously fun dance party of a show manages to get beyond the glitz and glamour that is so often the only thing we associate with Marcos in the USA. It offers an honest and thoughtful history of 20th century politics in the Philippines, without sacrificing a good time. You better bring your dancing shoes.
Set designer David Korins and director Alex Timbers have transformed the LuEsther Theater into Manila's hottest nightclub (with a slightly less party-hungry clientele). The audience is on its feet for the whole show, presided over by a shades-wearing DJ. We move around the space with the set and even line dance (poorly) as the story of Imelda plays out around us.
With music and lyrics by former Talking Heads front man David Byrne and DJ Fatboy Slim, Here Lies Love is almost completely sung through. It traces Imelda (Ruthie Ann Miles) from her humble beginnings as a beauty queen in Tacloban to her status as the "it girl" of Manila society and the object of affection for both war hero Ferdinand Marcos (the handsome and cocky Jose Llana) and his political rival Ninoy Aquino (a righteously indignant Conrad Ricamora). After an eleven-day courtship, Imelda marries Ferdinand and soon becomes first lady when he is elected president. As first lady, she discovers a world of glamour and excess (and pills), jetting off to New York and Paris for lavish shopping excursions, even as average Filipinos barely scrape by back home. She comes under intense criticism from her ex-boyfriend, the liberal Aquino for this, but she just can't stop the party! So in 1972, near the end of her husband's second term, the Marcoses issue order 1081, declaring martial law, suspending civil liberties, imprisoning Aquino, and holding onto power until U.S. Marines evacuated them from Manila at the height of the 1986 People Power Revolution that ultimately led to their downfall.
"Why Don't You Love Me," an exasperated Imelda sings at the throng of protestors outside her palace. Indeed, this is a woman who wanted to be Eva Peron — that is to say, high flying, adored — but ended up being her country's Marie Antoinette. Miles exudes the pretty sweetness that was central to Imelda's public image, but she is also able to turn on a dime into a ruthless politico. The show places much of the Marcos dictatorship squarely on her shoulders, featuring Ferdinand in a hospital bed well before 1081 while Imelda looks on and sings, "Now I have to do everything."
What she actually ends up doing is what she's always done, host parties for global leaders in an effort to schmooze her way through the Cold War…and we're invited. I reveled in throwing down with Mikhail Gorbachev as Imelda belted out a dance anthem on stage. She dons ever-higher shoulder pads (props to the herculean work of costume designer Clint Ramos) in her pursuit of beauty and power, and one can't help but submit to Imelda's charm.
It's not all a party, however: The script is quite critical of the Marcos government, especially post-1081. Timbers supports the text with projections of actual photos and video from the Marcos era, including the tarmac assassination of Ninoy Aquino (often blamed on the Marcoses), as it is happens live in the space. Projection Designer Peter Nigrini has managed to turn practically every surface in the theater into a screen and the result is a breathtaking sensory overload.
The final song in the show, "God Draws Straight," taken from actual oral testimony of participants in the peaceful revolution that overthrew the Marcoses, is reminiscent of "Second Nature," the penultimate song in Timbers' Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Both feature a lone acoustic guitarist singing a reflective song about national character in tones simultaneously heartbreaking and optimistic. Has Timbers discovered a formula for irreverent (but secretly very serious) musical histories? If so, it works. This song makes it clear that the real story is about the basic decency and peaceful persistence of the people living in one of the poorest countries in the world, not a fabulous and grotesque "Iron Butterfly."
The Philippines is still a poor country: The $90.50 price of one ticket to Here Lies Love — that's 90 minutes of entertainment — could feed a family of six on Mindanao for two months. The country is developing however, perhaps in spite of the persistence of the usual suspects in government. The current president of the Philippines is Benigno Aquino III, son of Ninoy. On May 13 of this year, 83-year-old Imelda Marcos will run for reelection as the representative from the second district of Ilocos Norte, her husband's birthplace. She will probably win.
By bringing this important history to the stage in a fun and memorable way, and most of all by explicating the American role in it, Here Lies Love is a worthwhile evening of theater, not to be missed if you're lucky enough to afford a ticket.