Like many guys, I’m not much of a dancer. I feel self-conscious. I can’t help it. Intellectually, I know others don’t care, they’re too busy having a good time to stop and stare at my geeky moves, but in that primitive fight-or-flight territory of my brain, dancing in public probably qualifies as a near phobia, what public speaking means to some people. You do it only when you have to. I’ve tried to avoid dances all my life except when it was socially necessary, such as a school prom or a fraternity party. (Not a kegger, a dance!) Dancing in a stage musical, for which you have to memorize and repeat the choreography, is somehow different for me, and I’ve done that several times without any anxiety beyond the normal butterflies. But I still have a little improv-dancing-in-public prob.
So it was that I absorbed many warning signals about the immersive theatrical experience HERE LIES LOVE as it prepared for its world premiere engagement at the Public Theater. You’ll stand for an hour and a half, on a set that’s made to look like a disco (I hate disco). You’ll be encouraged to dance. Wear comfortable shoes. If you really have to sit down, tell us in advance so we can scoosh you into a spot where you can. As the ticket date approached, even despite glowing reviews (I don’t read the details beforehand, just try to suss the general opinion), I was apprehensive enough that I suggested my wife invite another friend in my place. It didn’t work out, so I reluctantly trudged down to Astor Place last night. An hour and a half later, I realized what a close call it was. If I had turned down the chance to see this show, it would have been the most colossal mistake of my theatergoing life.
More indications that this one was Different appeared as we walked up the stairs to the third floor of the Public complex. Signs reading, we really think you should check your coats and bags, trust us. No theater program upon entering; you and I’m guessing 150 others are just in this disco with blinking lights and a pumping beat, a DJ gyrating on a balcony level above your head. There are a few seated people peeking over the edge, but since the action darts around, the only way to see the entire show is to be on the dance floor: there will be occasional obstructions from any balcony seat, just as most of the SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE audience, encircling the stage one level above, can’t see everything that’s happening on the Studio 8H floor.
There was a raised horizontal stage in the center of the room, the people milling about all around it. When it came time to start, the DJ pointed out a few stagehands in light orange jumpsuits, standing among us. When they want to move the stage around, he said, they’ll herd you to make room, so go wherever they point you. For a practice run, they rotated the stage as we followed them in a wide circle. From then on, the set crew would work nearly as hard as the actors, transforming the performing space into two room-ending stages, a horizontal walk-through ramp, all the permutations in between, and finally a huge stairway like the one in Duffy Square, where the two-thirds of the audience that had accepted the offer to come up on stage themselves could sit down for the finale. (So it’s no spoiler to say if they invite you on stage, by all means GO.) The DJ also asked us to shut off our cell phones, but anyone dumb enough to ignore him would have been unable to hear their call anyway, and trying to text on an active dance floor is, let’s just say, counterindicated.
The piece itself is a mostly sung-through operetta about the origin and brutal reign of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos from 1965 through 1986 (under martial law beginning in 1972) and its public face, his wife Imelda. It’s also about the spirit and resilience of the Filipino people, who finally took back their country after four days of intense but nonviolent protest. This sounds (a) grim, and (b) kind of like EVITA II, but nope, it’s neither one.
The disco setting is used as a metaphor for the motivating power of celebrity as wielded on the masses, and also because that’s pretty much the kind of life Imelda Marcos lived. You’re swept up in the excitement, which literally, physically, carries you along. One minute you’re in the back of the crowd watching the soloist from forty feet away, the next minute everything has moved around and she’s right in front of you – or even next to you. When Imelda comes down into the audience to meet her adoring public – played now by us — a video camera follows her and the images are projected on all four walls as smitten audience members take her hand and smile beatifically. When her husband first runs for office, he’s surrounded by Men In Black Ray-Banned bodyguard types, who walk down the ramp all the way across the room, leaning down to shake hands and bark, “Vote for Marcos!” One of the goons grabbed my hand, and it was all I could do to keep from saying, “I will!”
David Byrne dreamed all this up and wrote the lyrics, and collaborated with Fatboy Slim on the music. It’s not exactly disco, not that droning metronomic vibe. Not exactly hip-hop, though it feels fresh and new. Not exactly show tunes, either, though several performers get rare quieter belters that garner applause. It’s mostly smart, melodic dance music, but the intimate setting lets the thirteen billed performers – if they’re not all Filipino, they can sure play it – engage the audience more viscerally than anything I’ve seen since the heyday of the Living Theater. And that includes rock stars who numbly order you to “clap yo hands!”
David Byrne is probably the “sell” on the show – that’s certainly why we bought our tickets – but for my money the guy who deserves just as much credit is the genius director, Alex Timbers. He co-wrote and staged the fiercely entertaining BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON a couple years ago; directed PETER & THE STARCATCHER, a charming piece that uses low-tech theatrical effects to beguile its audience with the Peter Pan backstory; and won the Obie a while ago for directing A VERY MERRY UNAUTHORIZED CHILDREN’S SCIENTOLOGY PAGEANT. I adored them all. This summer, he’ll be reunited with ANDREW JACKSON collaborator Michael Friedman for a new musical version of LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST as the second Shakespeare in the Park show at the Delacorte. In the dictionary, that’s his picture beside the word “creative.” From now on, if Timbers’s name’s on the show, I’m there. Here, as in STARCATCHER, he uses “hand-rolled” theatrical moves (most big set changes on Broadway are done by computer now, along little tracks just under the stage) to down-tech the show, dunk the audience in it (I’d like to meet the guy who manages to fall asleep!), and lift their heads up while it’s still refreshing. I also want to send props out to sound designers M. L. Dogg and Cody Spencer: even above the dance-club din, we made out more of Byrne’s brainy lyrics than we had during the “state-of-the-art” production of MATILDA (which is a scream, by the way).
The dancing? Oversold. You can stand there like a potted plant if you want to, but the music is just too much to resist, so you’re moving around, there’s that. Then they show you how to jump, clap, left, right, in unison, like Imelda. The moves were pretty easy, but I still sucked, yet I didn’t care, and that went double for everybody else standing near me. How close I came to missing all this. Note to self: listen to wife all the time from now on! We got the Playbill upon leaving, and my one and only beef was with two female dweebs who’d retained their backpacks despite the quite reasonable pre-show suggestion and, like nearly every other urban backpack carrier on earth, were oblivious to whatever they’re swatting from behind. One Trendora whirled toward me in irritation at feeling a bit of resistance, thus swatting somebody else! A pox on all backpackers who aren’t climbing mountains, on safari, or attending grade school.
After a long time seeing uninspired cookie-cutter musicals, and sadly noting that too often the best dramas on Broadway are revivals, it feels great when something comes up behind you and smacks you with a 2×4. The last time was probably GATZ, also here at the Public. Anyhow, if you can get a ticket, do it. They have held this show over twice, and now it runs through the end of June. It can’t move to a big Broadway theater (as, recently, did the Public’s ANDREW JACKSON and its Central Park productions of HAIR and THE MERCHANT OF VENICE). This piece has to happen in a room just like this one. But if you get the chance – can L.A. be far behind? – DO NOT MISS. Oh, and wear comfortable shoes.
P.S.: If it’s been more than, say, nine months since you’ve been to the Public Theater facility in the historic Astor Library (a New York City Landmark in its own right), you will find it transformed, particularly the gorgeous lobby area, after a $40 million renovation of which we were happy to be a small part. We had a light dinner beforehand in the new lounge The Library, a great addition that helps you cut it much closer to curtain time.
5/31/13: Today the Public announced one final extension, through July 28. This show could probably run forever, only it can’t.