Last night, I got my disco history on!
Here Lies Love ain’t your grandpa’s Broadway show - it’s your cool tita’s, who wears way too much purple eyeshadow. But while it serves up nonstop spectacle, its story has about as much nutritive value as a box of barquillos.
Two novelties serve as the conjoined epicenter of Here Lies Love: first, we have the ALL-IMMERSIVE 360-degree theatrical experience, where you-the-audience shake your shit on a dance floor as actors, video screens, and industrial light and magic surround you at every turn.
Second, we have the story, in which a high-energy, high-sex-appeal, mega-talented ALL-FILIPINO cast regales you with a crucial slice of Philippines history.
The all-immersive stuff is a full-body delight, and reason enough to recommend the show to anyone who's hungry for theatrical innovation - or, put another way, a sucker for gimmicks. (I'm both.)
Anywhere in the theater that director Alex Timbers could stick an actor or audience cluster, he stuck them. The all-around projections feel like you're falling through a rabbit hole sponsored by MTV. Somehow it doesn't feel like chaos: thanks to the floor crew traffic-directing audience members like we're tiny mewling cats, the show feels interactive but not overbearing. (If anything, it could have used MORE moments of audience dance participation, but I understand you gotta keep it friendly for the various ages and hip conditions of the audience.)
The Filipino aspect of this show, on the other hand, is a mixed supot.
It was an unmatchable thrill to see Filipino faces on stage and in the audience LIVING for the night. It was a magic moment for me when a character intoned “Putang ina mo!” and roughly 60% of the crowd went “Ohhhh!” because #IYKYK.
The show tells the story (really a quickfire summary) of President Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda, a woman whose tale exists in the Filipino canon as an unholy fusion of Princess Diana and Donald Trump. The story of the Marcoses hits home for me, as the dictator’s declaration of martial law in the early 1970s played a significant part in compelling my parents - like many Filipinos - to haul ass to the States. And yet, reverence for the Marcoses and Imelda in particular remains stubbornly strong for many… so much so that their son is, well, the current president of the country. One of my family members like to say with unironic adoration, “Imelda put the Philippines on the map.” Yeah, but in a bad way, kuya!
Anyway, it’s complicated. And more than a 90-minute dance-stravaganza could cover. But this show doesn’t even try to dig deep. The audience is left with a pretty flimsy portrait of Imelda, who’s reduced to character beats that feel straight out of the “biopic of a famous woman” playbook. ***She’s motivated by a broken heart, and she had a DRUG problem!*** Her 11 o’clock number has her wailing, “Why don’t you love me?” to her country - a straightforward riff on at least 3 numbers from Evita, itself a thin yet rousing show about a fascinating political figure.
David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s “outside looking in” approach to the material dampens the full potential of Here Lies Love. White American authors leaning hard into the white-friendly notion that “Filipinos aspire to American ideals” simply feels meh. Even more frustrating: when you hear the names of those 2 musicians, you think it’s gonna be this hyper-modern-sounding disco-new-wave-electronica-flavored show that sounds unlike anything else on Broadway, right? Well, the songs are danceable and sometimes catchy, but all kinda safe-sounding. (For history-flavored bangers that really hit the spot, stick with Six). It’s kinda telling when the evening’s finest number is the acoustic closer that sounds nothing like the rest of the show.
The best part of the show, undeniably, is the cast. It was a thrill to dance in the same space as Pinoy powerhouses like Arielle Jacobs, Conrad Ricamora, and freakin' LEA SALONGA! One of my favorite moments was when Ms. Salonga walked into the audience and parted the crowd with a simple flick of her hands, and we obliged because we were in the presence of a queen.
Look, I had an excellent time, and my gaysian ass is not gonna be mad at a show that wants everyone to have a ball with Filipinos all night. But after the last bit of confetti wafts to the floor, we're left with a show feels less substantial than a 10-minute animated explainer video about the same subject, and less nuanced than a Lifetime Network Marilyn Monroe biopic from 2009. I've wondered for a long time who the hell this couple is who captivated a nation yet also left it broke (and in many ways broken). After Here Lies Love, I'm all danced out and high on Filipino pride... but I'm still wondering.