David Byrne does not lack ambition.
For his first musical, "Here Lies Love," it wasn't enough for the Talking Heads founder and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer to tackle the rise and fall of former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos, with all its personal and political intrigue intact. Using historical texts, TV footage and oral histories to inform the lyrics, Byrne, with help from dance artist and producer Fatboy Slim, crafted a show filled with memorable songs and disco-worthy beats. He then sets the entire package in a makeshift Marcos-era Manila club, with audience members standing on the dance floor and action taking place all around them.
The result is spectacular. While a working knowledge of Filipino history makes Byrne's accomplishment extra-impressive, it isn't necessary to follow the story of Imelda, played with sweetness and steel by Ruthie Ann Miles. Imelda wins her hometown beauty pageant and moves to Manila where she meets up-and-coming Senator Ferdinand Marcos (Jose Llana) and marries him 11 days later. She explains the whirlwind courtship in the funky "11 Days," a number that looks and sounds like it could have come straight from Janet Jackson's "Control" days, a thrilling jam that makes the most of both the talented ensemble and the staging that keeps audience members looking all around to make sure they're not missing anything. (The immersive elements of "Here Lies Love" generally work -- especially when the DJ gets the crowd to line dance and karaoke longtime Filipino club favorites -- though during one quiet moment in the show, it was distracting.)
When Marcos gets elected president, he and Imelda begin to get corrupted by the new power and its trappings, opposed at every turn by Ninoy Aquino, Imelda's ex-boyfriend. Aquino is played by Conrad Ricamora as equal parts Barack Obama and Byrne, culminating marvelously in "The Fabulous One," a hip-hop influenced takedown of Imelda's jet-set lifestyle being financed by the economically struggling Filipino people.
As dizzying as the well-choreographed numbers on the multiple stages and the driving disco beat are during "Here Lies Love," the most memorable song is a quiet, acoustic one, "God Draws Straight," taken from oral histories of participants in The People Power Revolution of 1986. "You might think you are lost," the show's DJ sings in the hopeful anthem, "but then you will find that God draws straight, but with crooked lines."
It also serves as the show's heart. "Here Lies Love" is inventive and glamorous, a must-see experience made even more worthwhile by the hopefulness and sweetness at its core.
WHAT "Here Lies Love"
WHERE The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., Manhattan
INFO $80.50-$95.50; 212-967-7555; publictheater.org