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BWW Reviews: HERE LIES LOVE, One of 2013's Best Musicals, Returns to The Public

A little more than a year ago, The Public Theater's premiere production of the innovative and intelligent crowd-pleasing musical Here Lies Love received such a welcoming critical reception that the Internet was soon abuzz with rumors about a commercial transfer, perhaps even to Broadway.

BWW Reviews:  HERE LIES LOVE, One of 2013's Best Musicals, Returns to The Public
Ruthie Ann Miles and Company (Photo: Joan Marcus)

But the immersive, site-specific nature of the piece no doubt made finding an appropriate venue difficult. Fortunately, this enormously fun and exhilarating new musical is back at The Public for an open-ended run, and the only thing that'll keep you from dancing in aisles is the fact that there are no aisles. In fact, there are no seats, save for a handful up in the balcony for this strictly standing room only show.

Though he's currently represented on Broadway with the more conventional musical love story, Rocky, director Alex Timbers has earned a reputation as one of the hippest young directors in town for using smart stagecraft to make outlandish ideas work.

After turning the presidency of Andrew Jackson into an emo rock concert and the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard into a children's holiday pageant, Timbers now stages the story of the political and romantic rise and fall of Ferdinand Marcos and his partner in corruption, Imelda (who I'm told loved the nightlife and often got to boogie), as a night at a Filipino dance club, where disco, techno and house music are accompanied by flashing lights and the seeds of revolution.

Those who are immediately turned off by the thought of audience participation theatre need not fear. This is not one of those shows that breaks the fourth wall to single out and/or embarrass customers, but depictions of the masses are intrinsic to the storytelling and it's easy (and fun) to get caught up in the mob mentality; particularly when company members lead the audience in line dancing or an angry protest chant of, "Rise up!"

Since the invention of karaoke is credited to Filipino Roberto del Rosarioa, the concept has the cast singing to recorded tracks of the score by David Byrne (lyrics and music) and Fatboy Slim (music), often using hand-held microphones. There's almost no dialogue; not even recitative. Just a series of hard-thumping dance tunes that, for authenticity's sake, are written in simple pop vernacular with not a lot of attention to perfect rhyming. But Byrne's lyrics, many of them adapted from real life speeches and interviews, are heavily detailed in storytelling and projections explaining who the characters are and the context of each song makes the plot easy, and quite exciting, to follow.

BWW Reviews:  HERE LIES LOVE, One of 2013's Best Musicals, Returns to The Public
Jose Llana (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Ruthie Ann Miles was just terrific as Imelda Marcos last year and is even more detailed and sympathetic now. Any diva-ish qualities she displayed before have been replaced by an ignorant innocence as she plays the simple country girl who moves to the big city after winning a beauty contest and eventually gets caught up in the glamorous excitement of being the country's first lady, spending extravagant amounts of money on unnecessary government projects while her people are starving. (Curiously, there's no mention of her infamously large shoe collection,)

As Ferdinand Marcos, the handsome Jose Llana displays a devilish charm as he seduces both the lady and the country. An impassioned Conrad Ricamora plays Ninoy Aquino, Imelda's first boyfriend who later becomes a leader in exposing the corruption of the Marcos administration. More poignant moments are handled by the beautifully singing Melody Butiu, as Imelda's childhood friend, Estrella.

The dynamic Kelvin Moon Loh spends most of the show perched above the crowd, raising the excitement level as the evening's DJ, but the musical's most striking moment comes when the mood suddenly changes to a coffee house atmosphere as Loh leads the company in a subtle, uplifting acoustic folk song about the People Power Revolution, which peacefully overthrew the dictatorship.

Scenes are played out on various moveable platforms which stagehands reconfigure frequently during the non-stop proceedings while assistants in hot pink jumpsuits gently guide audience members out of the way. Choreographer Annie-B Parson's tireless ensemble dances up a whirlwind of disco moves as Timbers paints funny and surprisingly touching and dramatic moments.

It may sound like a campy gimmick, but Here Lies Love is seriously good musical theatre. All that's missing are overpriced drinks and the drunken idiots hitting on you.

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