Extravagance (and Shoe Love) in the Rise of a Despot

Via The New York Times

“The house was full of Heinz sandwich spread,” he said, referring to what was found in the family digs after Ferdinand Marcos was overthrown in 1986. “That’s another piece right there.”

As Mr. Byrne, the former Talking Heads frontman, with two female singers and a full band, traced the rise of the Steel Butterfly — from beauty queen to breakdown to power-mad wife to disco-dancing friend of George Hamilton — the story grew so odd that he stopped midsong to reassure the audience. “All this is highly researched,” he said. “This is not artistic license. This is reporting.”

Actually the work needed more imagination and analysis to lift it from flat biopic into statement-making art. (Presumably that will come later. The finished “Here Lies Love” will include dramatic scenes and historical video.) It purports to explore the relationship between Mrs. Marcos and Estrella Cumpas, her longsuffering nanny-maid. Joan Almedilla (Mrs. Marcos) and Ganda Suthivarakom (Ms. Cumpas) sweetly harmonized on many numbers, underscoring a symbiotic bond. But the lyrics didn’t delve much deeper into a potentially fascinating power dynamic.

Or maybe they did. For the first half of the show a bad sound mix meant the drums drowned out the vocals. It was hard to even hear the low-miked Ms. Almedilla until the ninth song, “Walk Like a Woman,” when she revealed a rich, soul-infused voice that seemed perfect for Broadway. (She appeared in “Miss Saigon” in the ’90s.) The dynamic Ms. Suthivarakom shined on “Men Will Do Anything,” dancing in place to a fusion of disco-rock, ’60s pop and Latin and Brazilian percussion.

Then, an hour in, things jelled. Earlier the production felt static and cold: the songs, while pretty, struck a similar tempo and melodic range and the band members stayed far apart on the huge stage. “Please Don’t,” a catchy song about Mr. Marcos’s alleged affair with a star of dune-buggy flicks, had a punchy techno beat that bore the stamp of the British D.J. Fatboy Slim, Mr. Byrne’s musical collaborator. The euphoric “Dancing Together” added rave-style whistle sounds; “Society People” pulsated with funk. Mr. Byrne has imagined staging “Here Lies Love” in a club, to compare dance-floor ecstasy to the feeling of dictatorial bullying. (But where will he stuff the orchestra, which joined him on the string-heavy trip-hop of “Solano Avenue” and closed the show?)

He seemed aware that the libretto has a long way to go in terms of finessing his larger themes. “Well, I’ll point it out,” he said, after describing the martial-law era of the Marcos reign. “There are some common resonances today.”

So, later, when people gave the show several standing ovations, were they applauding the enticing performances, the obvious potential of “Here Lies Love” or the fact that Mr. Byrne is an immensely charming artist who loves to take anticommercial risks? Like staging a rough work at Carnegie Hall.

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