At its heart, Here Lies Love, the adaptation of the 2010 double album of the same name released by big-beat DJ Fatboy Slim and former Talking Heads mastermind David Byrne, is a musical. But it’s a long way — both physically and aesthetically — from the likes of Kinky Boots or Annie. The show, running through June 2 at NYC’s Public Theater, was conceived as a piece of ”disco theater” requiring audience members to stay on their feet for the 90-minute running time (there is some seating in a mezzanine area, but it’s best to eschew the stilettos in favor of more comfortable footwear).
The team behind Here Lies Love has turned one of the Public’s black box spaces into a pretty convincing nightclub, placing the performers on mobile platforms and keeping the audience on the floor to move and dance at their discretion (except when gently guided by jump suited stagehands to steer clear of performers or moving scenery). The result is a completely immersive theater experience, lorded over by a DJ who provides some narration, teaches the occasional line dance, and spins the show’s worldbeat dance tracks, which pulsate with groovy funk backbeats and island-friendly rhythmic rolls. There aren’t any traditional chest-beating ballads, though the tinkling ”The Rose of Tacloban” and the desperately swirling ”Why Don’t You Love Me?” come closest. The rest of the grooves are designed to keep the audience in a near-constant state of motion.
Given the nature of the presentation, it would be easy to get caught up in the flashing lights and actors bounding between platforms. But unlike similarly presented events like De La Guarda, there’s some exceptionally tight storytelling cloaked beneath the mirrorball glitz. The tunes track the meteoric rise and precipitous fall of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, the first couple of the Philippines whose two-decade reign began as a storybook underdog tale and ended with the 1986 People Power Revolution that sent them into exile.
The story is told through the eyes of Imelda, who went from a local village beauty queen to a shoe-mongering lightning rod guilty of graft, blackmail, and embezzlement (though not mentioned in the show, she and her husband stole over $1 billion dollars in public funds during his tenure). Byrne’s lyrics add color and nuance to the Marcoses’ relationship and ascension, carefully tracking their evolution into fascistic tyrants and lending Imelda a level of humanity that cuts through her outsize public persona. Various projections — datelines, newsreel footage, and photo montages — provide connective tissue, but for all the other sights and sounds, the words draw the strongest focus.
Here Lies Love’s most remarkable achievement is managing to tell a story about political corruption and popular empowerment without being heavy-handed — even the somewhat preachy revolutionary campfire singalong near the end reveals a sweet center by the time the harmonies climax in the third verse. That’s a testament to not only the excellent source material but also the performers, all of whom are vocally strong — an impressive feat considering the original album featured iconic voices like Cyndi Lauper, Florence Welch, Tori Amos, Natalie Merchant, and Byrne himself.
Ruthie Ann Miles is especially on point as Imelda. Not only does she have a lovely, dynamic set of pipes, but she also infuses the first lady with just the right amount of strength and sensitivity. She has the longest and most complicated journey of any character in the show, and she executes each step exquisitely. The unusual presentation will grab headlines for Here Lies Love, but it’s no gimmick — the show’s narrative center is so strong and its infectious melodic spirit so complete that it could easily work in a traditional theater setting (or in the round, on a street corner, or in your living room). The fact that you can sweat right along with the incredible cast is a happy-footed bonus. A
(Tickets: publictheater.org or 212-967-7555)