If you buy tickets to stand among the action on the ground floor, you are told to be aware of the revolving stage, and follow the direction of the stage hands holding colored batteries. If you are sitting upstairs, you are told when to get up and dance, and what to say.
It is important to note that David Korins’ renovated Broadway theater looks amazing; It has been transformed into a discotheque by a DJ (Moses Villarama) – and a valiantly kind of theater hanging on it – with a great lighting design by Justin Townsend and a projection running down its side by Peter Nigrini.
But that’s all the music (with David Byrne and Fatboy Slim), and the instruction to get up and dance in the service of that, the unrealized answer that is all too low. Here Lies Love. (And what does the title mean? The musical doesn’t make a convincing, or even clear, case for it.)
The 90-minute musical is about the rise and fall of the Marcos regime in the Philippines, and given the scale and brutality of their crimes against the entire country, the music sings and dances up a storm, although they don’t do much in a situation where there is nothing to sing and dance about. There is a lot of concept and dazzle in it Here Lies Lovebut little thought is given to what it means.
Not that the performers don’t give it their energetic best. Arielle Jacobs is a fierce and fearless Imelda, transformed from a country girl in a whirlwind (bravura opening numbers like “Here Lies Love” and “The Rose of Tacloban”) to an iron-bouffanted default dictator. In comparison Jose Llana and Ferdinand Marcos retreat a little, and Conrad Ricamora has the most difficult job on stage. As the leader of the opposition Ninoy Aquino urgently points out the destruction, persecution and cruelty of the Marcos regime. But, given the scope of the music, these feel more joyful than critical words. The energy of the music, the energy of the show, dua and glamor follow the Marcoses as they rise to power.
The choreography (Annie B-Parson) and the direction (Alex Timbers) are in constant theatrical flux. The show is absolutely the show it intends to be, a visual cornucopia. But what on earth is he making a show of? There is nothing to feel good about the motivations and rule of the Marcoses. You can’t reduce them, as one song does, to a groovy cultural product of the seventies, like Studio 54, name-checking famous people of the day as if this were just another exercise in nostalgic nostalgic digging.
And, okay, if you want to suck everything we know out of our heads and go to the whole camp—and ignore all their despicable actions—what is Imelda Marcos known for? A collection of shoes. What is missing from Here Lies Love? No sign of shoes, and no song about them!
Amidst the blazing sounds and visual fury, there is precious little character development. We don’t really understand Imelda’s character transformations from innocent to cruel commander. We don’t see anything about Marcos’ marriage. We don’t see their evolution into power-hungry, abusive monsters. Projections showing news headlines sketch the dark history of the Philippines, and the audience is left with song and dance and lights and froth, and occasional chants and dancing and waving our hands in the air.
Sometimes the songs are really ridiculous. A number like “Gate 37,” in which Ricamora as Aquino expects – quite rightly – to be assassinated as soon as he returns to the Philippines from temporary exile in America, but it is funny and ridiculous, pointing out that the marriage of music and politics can sometimes feel forced and absurd. Lea Salonga and Aurora Aquino, Ninoy’s mother, sing one song at the end, “Just Ask the Flowers” – a beautiful and nostalgic ballad for sure, but it’s not as arresting as it needs to be. And who was Aurora Aquino as a person? The musician says no. She appears, then disappears.
After the audience sees Imelda’s shocking transformation, she and the remaining characters sing “Why don’t you love me?” across the theatre. Again, the sentiment, the demand, seems maddened and undeserved. Love seems to be the last thing Imelda lacks; she commands devotion and loyalty from all she comes.
The problem that Here Lies Love What cannot be resolved is that this is not a period of history to easily invent exciting music-dance—and, if you are determined to do so, you need to pay more attention to the character and the storytelling than the projections here have left to be treated as a loyal sidebar to the gleeful circus that flows around them. A final song emphasizes the gravity of history, but it stands in stark contrast to the speeches that preceded it—too little, too late.
Here Lies Love not only does dictatorship and terror make real life trivial – especially terrible in light of the political period in which we live – it is also lazy and lazy in history. Yes, the show has a distinctive look and sounds. Yes, it is admirable to try something new in a Broadway theater to attract a wide audience, but not at the cost of minimizing consequent serious politics. Nothing to disco dance here really. Here Lies Love ended up feeling almost fantastically grotesque.
If you want to know how invested the audience is in Candrice Jones’ Flex (Lincoln Center Theatre, until 20 August), wait until the end – and the climactic championship that the Lady Train school basketball team participates in, with squabbles, wit, backchat, and tangled relationships we have been following for two more hours. The woman next to this reviewer was furiously crossing and crossing her legs as the final was going on. Would they win?
Matt Saunders’ stunning set of a scrappy basketball court has a final surprise that received a standing ovation of its own. Indeed, the cheers, sighs, applause and interactions of other audience members convey how poignantly the play—about a group of young Black women in a small Arkansas town in 1998, directed with vivid energy by Lileana Blain-Cruz—hit home. (He reminded this critic that Sarah DeLappes The IS wolvesabout a young women’s football team, also literally played in the same semi-circular space.)
And—wow—these actors can really play ball, especially Erica Matthews as Starra, whose baskets throughout the show were perfectly executed. She’s the show’s antagonist, determined to succeed, and mad about the relaxed life her bestie Sidney (Tamera Tomakili) seems to enjoy, with scouts from all the top teams knocking at the door. Cherise (Ciara Monique) and Donna (Renita Lewis) are in a secret relationship, and Cherise reflects on her faith as Donna leaves home.
The pregnancy of teammate April (Brittany Bellizeare) brings all the young ladies together – they don’t want their coach (Christiana Clark) to kick her off the team. But it is Starr’s actions towards Sydney, and one very important action she takes against her, that is the true narrative engine of the play. That act of defiance feels repetitive and overwritten – awful as it is. The most amazing thing to watch is the amazing basketball on stage, and the sharply written and extremely well-acted interactions of the women (especially after their car collides with an early-to-be bird), and the wisdom without the coach’s shit.
Flex it is a reflection on ambition, growth and realizing opportunities. It is also about the meaning and exercise of strength. Starra is angry about what she says and does, but through Matthews’ intense situation she realizes his fruitless nature. What makes a winner? Flex many answers are convincing, and tough too.