Simply walking into the performance space for Seattle Rep’s Here Lies Love is a surreal experience. The Bagley Wright Theatre has been completely transformed into a dark blue-lit night club. The floor seats are gone, replaced by a dance floor bookended by two stages and lined with catwalks. As light bounces off a disco ball suspended above an elevated center platform, the audience mingles, leans over two tiers of side views above, or finds their spot in the small seated section balcony in the back of the space. A 7:30pm start time on a Thursday evening suddenly feels like 1am clubbing on a Saturday night.
In this atypical theatrical setting, David Byrne, Fatboy Slim, and director Alex Timbers craft a whirlwind musical about the rise and fall of the Marcos regime in the Philippines through the lens of First Lady Imelda Marcos’s disco-tined rose-colored glasses. With a hype man DJ in an elevated booth serving as the narrator, Here Lies Love (which runs through June 18 at Seattle Rep) follows Imelda (Jaygee Macapugay) rising from humble beginnings, marrying Ferdinand Marcos (Mark Bautista), and struggling with his domineering ways while still basking in the lavishness that his presidency (and eventual dictatorship) provided before it all came crashing down thanks to the People Power Revolution. Complicating her story further is the fact that she dated the man who would become her husband’s political rival—Senator Beningo "Ninoy" Aquino Jr. (Conrad Ricamora)—before settling down with Ferdinand.
With the musical pedigree behind Here Lies Love, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the score and songs pulse with a captivating liveliness. The show wastes no time getting to its catchiest earworm, the titular “Here Lies Love.” Imelda’s ode establishes her character’s open-ended aim to be remembered for her devotion to love and beauty. There’s never a dip in the musical energy throughout the show (which is key when most of the audience is on their feet for 90 minutes), and the songs manage to effectively shift tones while remaining high energy. Tunes that capture the fear and oppression of the Marcos rule (“Order 1081”) or the wistful hope for a better future (“Gate 37”) are as spirited as ones about the blissful (and short) courtship of Imelda and Ferdinand (“Eleven Days”).
The complexity of Imelda makes her a tough role to pull off, but Macapugay succeeds at finding the contradictory nuances of the character. She must transition from being the a warm, sympathetic, bright-eyed girl next door to a cold, vindictive, and out of touch dictator’s wife in a manner that doesn’t feel too jarring. She must earn the audience’s love and hatred; a good girl of the Philippines power blinded with obliviousness to the point of turning on her friends in the name of crafting her own false narratives. Macapugay nails Imelda’s hometown bubbly innocence and the tear away gold dress disco glamour of her jaunts to New York City early, making it tougher for the audience to stomach the glow fading from her face due to the toils of a domineering husband, pills, and martial law.
While Ferdinand Marcos may be the man in power—and Bautista aptly portrays him with a cocksure, smiling-too-big-to-be-sincere smarminess—Here Lies Love really centers around the relationship between Imelda and Aquino, even when he’s not in the picture. This narrative dynamic works because Ricamora turns Aquino into a show-stealing fireball of charisma. Whether sweetly crooning when initially wooing Imelda with the doo-wop boy band-esque “Child of the Philippines” or emphatically talk-singing a political speech railing against her excess as a Senator with the revolution anthem (and the musical’s most energizing number) “The Fabulous One” (“Our country’s in trouble, but her party goes on”), his charm offensive wins at every turn. His star quality only makes the plot’s turns more impactful.
Watching the production from the dance floor is a unique and immersive experience. It’s hard to not get swept up in the story when the action swirls around each audience member. (This was especially true on opening night when David Byrne was among the crowd on the floor, enthusiastically singing and dancing along with his own musical. The man truly lives the dream.) Along the walls, projected images–including source footage of the actual events during the Marcos era—help set each scene. The DJ leads interactive dance breaks that even get the people in the balcony seats on their feet. Stagehands dressed in pink act as traffic controllers, managing the floor throng to open lanes for performers’ choreographed entrances and exits. The stage transforms throughout the show with the spinning center platform and other built-in design tricks. At times during these stage shifts, standing on the floor has a slight herded cattle feel, but the energy that comes from being part of the action makes up for any minor inconvenience.
When the people finally stand up against Marcos, the music fittingly gets stripped of its lavishness for the acoustic and poetic People Power Revolution anthem “God Draws Straight.” It’s an emotional shot fired for the beauty of nonviolence, and it hits its mark. But it’d be wrong to end the proceedings on such a reserved note, so following the cast's bows, things wrap up with a karaoke dance party reprieve rendition of “Here Lies Love.” After all, just because Imelda’s party deserved to end, doesn’t mean the audience’s celebration can’t stretch a little bit longer into the night.
Here Lies Love
Thru June 18, Seattle Repertory Theatre, $88–$123