Wednesday, May 21, 2014
David Byrne's Imelda Musical
Five years ago the renaissance pop musician/writer David Byrne decided to create a concept album about Imelda Marcos with Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita as one template and Imelda's adoration of disco music as another. He collaborated with British DJ Fatboy Slim and had additional help with the music from Tom Gandey and J Pardo. The piece has meandered its way from stand-up concert and theatrical workshops to a full-blown production at the Public Theater called Here Lies Love, under the direction of Broadway director of the moment Alex Timbers (above left lounging next to Byrne underneath the fabulous Ruthie Ann Miles who inhabits Imelda in the show).
The musical premiered last year as an interactive disco experience at the Public, and there were plans to move it uptown to Broadway but they couldn't find quite the right space so it's reappearing right now on one of the top floors at the Public, and is quite the intense spectacle. The difference between the original concept album, with female musician friends of Byrne filling in the various diva parts, and the current theatrical evolution is that Ninoy Aquino, Imelda's first boyfriend and eventual martyr, has become a major character commenting on the action. This is good because Conrad Ricamora is so electrifying in the role, but not so good as it prods the ambivalent oratorio towards a more simplistic moral, as in "Marcoses Bad, People Power Good."
In the hyperactive, interactive staging by Director Timbers, the standing and dancing audience is herded around as the central stage is moved throughout the evening by a small army of pink jumpsuited, dancing supernumeraries. The audience is also instructed in basic disco dance routines at certain moments, and often the performers are clutching at them while singing inches away. I found myself at one point "jumping to the sky" with Imelda on a stair step during the finale.
The show is highly recommended because it's never going to be this interesting again, unless you see it premiered in Metro Manila itself. Byrne's song cycle is characteristically brilliant, the performers are all superb, the stage director does everything but throw the kitchen sink at you, and the experience is strange, sweaty, intimate and loud (bring earplugs, particularly for the helicopter finale). My favorite moment, oddly enough, is when all the multimedia stops, the amplification goes away, and a trio sing a new song by Byrne called “God Draws Straight,” a ballad about the day the Marcos regime was toppled with lyrics taken from accounts by people who were there. And then we're back in the disco, singing Here Lies Love with Imelda, who by the way is still a congresswoman in The Philippines at age 83.