Absolute Power

Go see Here Lies Love. Wear sequins. Dance. Sing. Lose your friends. Raise the roof when you’re asked to. You won’t look dumb, because at Here Lies Love, the brilliantly constructed musical about infamous Filipino First Lady Imelda Marcos now getting its west coast premiere at Seattle Rep, we’re all in this together.

If you haven’t yet heard, Here Lies Love is a big-deal immersive dance-party musical, with concept and lyrics by David Byrne of Talking Heads, music by Byrne and Fatboy Slim, and additional music by Tom Gandey and J. Pardo. Alex Timbers, Tony-nominated for his work on Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Peter and the Starcatcher, directs.

Walking into the transformed Bagley Wright Theatre—house music thumping, saturated lights pulsing through haze, platinum-haired DJ in a booth high above—is a trip. The orchestra seats are gone, and the audience on the main floor stands around a raised stage in the center of the room, flanked by various platforms and stages around the perimeter, TV screens dotted across the walls showing historical and live footage.

Scattered throughout the crowd, staffers in electric-pink jumpsuits gently guide everyone as the central stage revolves during the show. (There are also galleries above and seats in the balcony for those who don’t want to stand.) The whole experience is incredibly well choreographed; not once was I unsure of what to do or where to be.

Imelda, “a simple country girl who had a dream,” was beautiful enough to get out of the small town where she grew up very poor. “The Rose of Tacloban” moves to the big city, Manila, and from there the show flies cleverly through time, alighting on important moments in Imelda’s life. Her pageant queen days, her first love Ninoy Aquino (who would become her future-husband’s political opponent), meeting and marrying Ferdinand Marcos. Her early political successes, her turn as a pill-popping, nightclub-loving international scenester. Her romantic betrayal, her husband’s declaration of martial law, the peaceful People Power Revolution that ousted them in 1986.

The show whizzes through 40-plus years, through pulse-altering dance numbers, fuzzed-out slinky ballads, and the impossibly hooky title number that’s still stuck in my head, and not in a bad way. (For musical theatre purists, please be aware that these are pop-music rhymes, which is to say they are sometimes jarringly false. Steel yourself.) It’s a treat to see Annie-B Parsons’ richly varied choreography, executed by a stunningly talented ensemble, so up-close and personal, along with gorgeous costumes by Clint Ramos. Those scary ’80s puffed sleeves never looked so good, and they’ve been translated beautifully into dance-able shapes.  

But it’s Jaygee Macapugay as Imelda whose sartorial evolution steals the show, shifting from ’50s floral skirts through ’70s gold paillettes to the sleek, sharp brocade coats of a wealthy stateswoman.

Macapugay, she of dazzling smile and steely voice, played Imelda at the Public Theatre in New York where the show premiered in 2013, and is one of several cast members (phenomenal, across the board) from the crazy-popular off-Broadway run performing in Seattle. Conrad Ricamora as Ninoy Aquino and Melody Butiu as Imelda’s childhood friend and nanny Estrella also appeared off-Broadway, and Mark Bautista, who plays Ferdinand Marcos, appeared in the London production.

Here Lies Love is both an excellent show and a problematic one, and you cannot discuss one aspect without the other.  When Imelda marries Ferdinand they’re suddenly on public international display—the young, beautiful pride of a nation a la Jackie and JFK. After Ferdinand corrects her pose for the camera yet again, Imelda asks, if he loved me from the moment he saw me, why does he want me to change? And I thought, wait, who were you before?

For much of the show, Imelda is given the personality traits of being pretty and loving love—the title is the epitaph she wishes for her tombstone (she’s still very much alive). Imelda’s beauty, says the show, is what got her out of poverty—but I can’t believe that she’s simply a constant victim of circumstance and not also a cagey, cunning woman. The wide-eyed sweetness dissipates only later in the show, illustrated largely through the relationship with Estrella that Imelda refuses to acknowledge, the first hint of the cruelty she’ll employ to maintain her status.

But who is Imelda at the beginning, and who is she at the end, and what are the implications of telling the story of how she got there? What is the responsibility of the show’s creators—white Western men—in telling the story of a poor Filipino girl who ended up First Lady to a dictator? It’s a fairly standard “beautiful woman scorned” story, and the fact that Imelda became a symbol of truly staggering greed and corruption is glossed over. The whole construct, the whirlpool of music and dance and lights and glitz, carries the audience along the same way Imelda found herself swept up in a deluge of power she’d never dreamed of, lifted in a soap bubble of money and self-delusion. It seduces you the way a charismatic dictator can seduce a willing populace. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t feel much of anything during much of the show besides YAY—which is an incredible feeling to have at the theatre, but didn’t leave me caring about anyone on stage. Not until Ninoy, having fled to America with Imelda’s help, says goodbye to his family to return to what is almost certainly death in his home country. 

But then again, as a friend said of the show: “That is the most fun I have ever had at the theatre, ever.” I have to agree, and the show can be both excellent and problematic at the same time. Go for the full-body theatre thrills, stay for the complicated socio-political questions. 

Here Lies Love has been extended through June 18.