We've seen some bold and brilliant reinventions of where musicals can take us in the last decade, including at the National Theatre where they've developed two musicals of staggering originality in Jerry Springer - the Opera (that set an episode of the eponymous TV reality show to an operatically inspired score that used a form of high art to satirise a form of low art) and London Road (that set verbatim real-life words to music to tell the true story of community reactions to a serial murderer in their midst).
Now the National have imported one of the most exciting new musicals of the last few years from Off-Broadway, Here Lies Love, which portrays a real-life revolution but also effects an onstage one in the challenging and provocative way it is staged. Rarely has a musical dared to take its viewers on a participatory journey through its narrative, but here - in one of the first genuinely immersive musical stagings - some audience members are plunged directly into its path.
One of the most famous productions ever to play at the National's Cottesloe was Bill Bryden's astonishing three part version of The Mystery Plays, which had the audience promenading throughout to become an integral part of its community storytelling. Now, newly reopened as the Dorfman Theatre as part of the £80m NT Future development, we are invited to promenade again for Here Lies Love, a musical that charts the rise of Imelda Marcos from poor beauty queen pageant entrant to First Lady of the Philippines, as her husband Ferdinand Marcos became President and later effectively dictator as he imposed martial law to stifle all opposition.
But if its narrative trajectory is similar to Evita (though in this case the deathbed scene is not of Imelda but of her husband), and there are also echoes of Les Miserables (as Imelda's former best childhood friend Estrella becomes like an outcast Eponine, singing from behind a gate), it's a musical that is a different beast entirely to either. Though through-sung, there is none of the grandeur of those show's pop opera aspirations; instead, it plays out as a vibrant, noisy club night.
Imelda Marcos - herself a regular at New York clubs like Studio 54 - would feel right at home. And even as someone who usually resists audience participation, so did I. (You are not forced to dance, but you might feel you want to! You could also just watch from seats on the sidelines of the two upper levels, but you may miss out). The show is simply outrageous (and courageous) fun. But it also has a very serious purpose, which is to use its hedonistic form to tell a powerful and poignant story of the corruption of power and how a public (and peaceful) movement managed to eventually unseat them.
There's a revolution at the heart of the show, and it effects a revolution, too, on musicals themselves and how they interact with audiences. With its wild and wickedly good score by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, which comes at you full blast as a mixture of frenzied club remixes and beautiful ballads, it's a feast for the ears, and the production is a constantly beguiling sight for the eyes, too, with fast formation choreography by Annie-B Parson and dazzling projections by Peter Nigrini to set scenes.
The stage and audience, too, are effectively choreographed, as the platforms on which it takes place are endlessly reconfigured around us. You cannot fail to feel part of it. One of the sexiest, most sensual casts in London give it amazing energy and spirit, led by Natalie Mendoza as Imelda Marcos, Mark Bautista as her philandering husband, Dean John-Wilson as Imelda's former lover Ninoy Aquino who becomes a serious critic of their regime, and Gia Macuja Atchison as Imelda's childhood maid and estranged best friend Estralla Cumpas.
The result is a must-see show that takes musicals to new places, and audiences to a new high.
"Though it delivers “360” degree theatre, it can’t be said to achieve a fully rounded portrait of its anti-heroine...The show doesn’t quite grasp that holy grail of combining club-nite excitement with fully engrossing theatre. But my goodness it comes close and what a way to launch the Dorfman."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"Natalie Mendoza, in full-blooded voice is stunning at every stage of Imelda's development, especially when the infidelity of Mark Bautista's smugly sexy Ferdinand (cue a factory-belt of identical blondes in black scanties) turns her into the glazed, self-deceived icon who imagines that she is both star and slave to the people."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Yet, for all the charm of the music and the vigour of Annie-B Parson’s choreography, I came out feeling that such a subject craves more complex treatment...Byrne has come up with a clever idea, but I longed for a first-rate musical dramatist to add substance to the 90-minute spectacle."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"But this is a show that focuses on less familiar details, with Peter Nigrini’s video footage serving up unexpected historical nuggets. And while Natalie Mendoza’s charismatic Imelda is a diva whose life feels like a kitsch beauty pageant, there are notes of darkness."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"The staging is ingenious and owes as much to rock videos as it does to musical theatre."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail