The brightest, liveliest, dancingest, tunefulest new musical in New York just now is the David Byrne-Fatboy Slim political/historical discobeat poperetta Here Lies Love. The show, which premiered in April 2013 at the Public Theater's LuEsther Hall, has now returned for a commercial run. The happy news is that it is even better than before thanks to a boosted budget that has enhanced the lighting, video, technology and costume departments. The virtually identical cast — which had been marvelously impressive in the first production — is now altogether sparkling, helping propel Here Lies Love near the top of the list of shows you gotta see.
What you don't get at the Public, though, is a chance to actually listen to the score. You feel it, literally; the show is performed around you, with the patrons shuttled around the rectangular space to make way for scenic platforms and actors, and the rhythmic beat is wired into you through the soles of your sneakers. As exhilarating as the show is, I was unable in two viewings to actually concentrate on the score itself. There is simply too much happening most of the time — on the floor, on the platforms around you, on the video screens overhead — to absorb more than a few of the quieter (and excellent) songs.
The new 2-disc CD from Nonesuch takes care of that, all right. The score is revealed to be as glitteringly faceted as the production itself. The Messrs. Byrne and Slim have forged a new and different music-theatre form which works spectacularly well. (I suppose that within a year or two we will start to see copycats trying to replicate the show's success, and fail.) Those who discover the CD after absorbing the dazzle on display at the Public will find their enjoyment magnified; those who discover the CD first will, presumably, appreciate the show even more when they see it on stage. Now that I have heard the CD several times, I'm eager to go back and see the show again. (I will add, in a minor parenthetical, that some of the lyrics, when heard more clearly on disc, are not always quite as artful as we might like.)
The CD gives us all the more opportunity to appreciate the leading players. The quality of Ruthie Ann Miles' performance as Imelda is fully evident at the Public; along with being a full and active participant in the hyper-active proceedings, she gets to stand relatively still and sing three of the best songs, "Here Lies Love," "The Rose of Tacloban," and "Star and Slave." Jose Llana (as Marcos) and Conrad Ricamora (as Aquino) both shine in their many opportunities. Two of the finest moments come from actors in less prominent roles, Melody Butiu with "When She Passed By" and Natalie Cortez with "Just Ask the Flowers." I'm finding that my favorite, though, is the quietest moment of the show. Kelvin Moon Loh, who has been shrieking throughout the evening as the D.J. perched above the space, comes out at the end with a simple guitar (and without his wild makeup) to sing "God Draws Straight," and it's a wondrous way to end this wondrous piece. Sharing credit for the remarkable entertainment are director Alex Timbers, choreographer Annie-B Parson, the full design team (including not only sets, costumes and lights but sound and projections as well) and the music department. But first and foremost come Mr. Byrne and Mr. Slim. They have given us a 21st century Evita, only with better songs.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Opening Night on Broadway" books, and "The Book of Mormon: The Testament of a Broadway Musical." He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)