Tales of Sound and Fury: Here Lies Love Is Mesmerizing, Bountiful Has a Big Heart, Fiona Shaw’s Testament Is Riveting and Alan Cumming Gives a Tour de Force Macbeth

'The Assembled Parties' is funny and poignant but scattered, 'Orphans' is a little lost, and 'Jekyll & Hyde' is dreadful

Baldwin in 'Orphans.' (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Baldwin in ‘Orphans.’ (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Bad news, Bette. Celebrity actors are bustin’ out all over the Theater District this spring, but it turns out the must-see event of the season is at the Public Theater, where Here Lies Love, David Byrne’s clubland pop opera on the life of Imelda Marcos, opened last night. Already twice extended, this is a show that will be bringing town cars down Lafayette Street till it closes.

Mr. Byrne, the erstwhile Talking Head, began with a song cycle about Mrs. Marcos, the ambitious and high-living wife of Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos. Hers is a compelling story, and an inherently theatrical one: a middle-class woman who reached the heights of wealth and power, a devoted political wife devastated by news of her husband’s adultery, an acquisitive Machiavelli who ran the country while her husband was ill. That the jet-setting Mrs. Marcos liked to hang out in disco-era hot spots provided a genre: Mr. Byrne’s album is inspired by ’70s and ’80s dance music. The producer Fatboy Slim provided beats, singers like Cyndi Lauper, Nellie McKay and Sharon Jones provided vocals, and Mr. Byrne’s Here Lies Love—the title is the epitaph Mrs. Marcos has requested for her grave—was released in 2009. It’s not a defense of Mrs. Marcos, an indictment or even a documentary; mostly, it’s an emotional record of her life.

Now the explosively creative theater director Alex Timbers, working with Mr. Byrne and a gifted design team, has turned that album into an eye-popping, head-bopping, immersive theater experience. Theatergoers climb to the Public’s third floor and enter a theater that’s been remade as a disco. Music is playing, and the audience stands around elevated stages. Those stages will move, and there are jumpsuited men to direct you out of the way. All around you—in song and dance, with projections and parades—Mrs. Marcos’s story will be told. It’s emotionally rich and deeply engaging. You will be surprised to find yourself cheering for Ferdinand’s first electoral win.

Mr. Byrne’s music is propulsive, and the cast—mostly unknown, mostly Filipino—is fantastic. Annie-B Parson’s choreography is mesmerizing nightclub dancing with martial undertones. The costumes by Clint Ramos are sleek and sexy, with the requisite arm-poufs for Mrs. M. (David Korins is the scenic designer and Justin Townsend the lighting designer.)

The show isn’t perfect. Unsurprisingly for what began life as a song cycle, the narrative can sometimes be unclear. And while the moving stages are cool and visually intriguing, it’s also a distraction each time an attendant taps you on the shoulder and you have to look away from the action to make sure you’re out of the way of yet another rolling platform.

But Here Lies Love is exciting, unexpected and an awful lot of fun. As the room rearranged itself yet one more time, I looked across the stage to see a dude in flannel and a watch cap smiling and bouncing his head to the music. Just to his right, an older couple in turtleneck sweaters was doing the same. Like Mrs. Marcos always wanted, the masses are happy.

The Trip to Bountiful, meanwhile, is a trip to the other end of the theatrical spectrum. It’s a big production of a sentimental Broadway drama, played in the cavernous Stephen Sondheim Theatre (where it opened last night) with a celebrity cast. And it’s every bit as engrossing as its hip downtown counterpart.

A Horton Foote play first produced in 1953, The Trip to Bountiful is a simple, sweet story about family and home: an old woman who lives in Houston with her meek son and domineering daughter-in-law wants to see the small town where she was born, Bountiful, before she dies.

Staged by Michael Wilson with a crackerjack cast led by Cicely Tyson, 79 years old and gleefully stealing scenes from Cuba Gooding Jr. (as her son) and Vanessa Williams (as her daughter-in-law), this is a graceful production. A recurring theme is that Ms. Tyson’s Carrie Watts has a bad heart and shouldn’t be traveling. But of course she has the biggest heart in her family, and this show—the most enjoyable production of a Foote play I’ve seen—has plenty of heart too.

Holy mother of Christ is Fiona Shaw good.

Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary, which opened Monday at the Walter Kerr, is a one-woman show in which the gospel is retold from Mary’s point of view. Ms. Shaw plays her as an anxious, distracted, devoted and guilt-ridden mother.

Working with her longtime collaborator Deborah Warner, who directs, Ms. Shaw’s Mary is very human, pacing a junk-strewn campsite. The playbill lists the time as now, and as Mary paces the stage she smokes cigarettes and drinks from coffee cups. Ms. Shaw is riveting.

Mr. Tóibín’s play, however, is less so. There are moments of transcendent, spine-tingling beauty, but there are also long stretches leading up to those moments that get lost in a thicket of storytelling that is near indecipherable, at least to those of us whose religious education reads from right to left. At those points, the 90 minutes can seem interminable. Still, for the good parts, it’s worth it.

Amid the fragrance line, the mugging and the debaucherous man-about-town party-going, it’s easy to forget that Alan Cumming is a serious actor, and a very good one. His one-man Macbeth, which played the Lincoln Center Festival last summer, opened Sunday at the Ethel Barrymore, and it is a tour de force performance.

Directed by John Tiffany (of Once and Black Watch) and Andrew Goldberg, this Macbeth is set in a psychiatric ward, and it opens with two attendants removing a disheveled suit from a bloodied Mr. Cumming and placing the clothes in evidence bags. They leave—“When shall we three meet again?” Mr. Cumming asks as they exit—and Mr. Cumming begins to retell the famous story, playing all the parts. He is monitored by security cameras and gazed at by attendants as he bounces among beds, slits his wrists and tries to drown himself in a bathtub.

It all works, and it’s transfixing.

Man may have a dual nature, but about some things there are not two sides. Jekyll & Hyde, the Frank Wildhorn musical, with book and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, is one of them: as revived at the Marquis Theatre last week, it is dreadful.

Mr. Wildhorn has a well-earned reputation as a reliable composer of unsuccessful musicals that somehow get produced. At Jekyll & Hyde I once again found myself thinking that the composer is perhaps worst served by his collaborators. Two of his songs for Jekyll & Hyde are justifiably beloved by musical-theater geeks, and the rest of the music is pleasant if uninspired pop-rock.

But the dialogue is laughable and the lyrics worse. Constantine Maroulis, the would-be American Idol in the lead role, can sing but cannot act. (Deborah Cox, however, gives a nice performance as his love interest/victim.) And ultimately this production, directed by Jeff Calhoun, is so overstuffed and overdone that even the roller-skating models of Starlight Express would find it a bit much.

Orphans, the Lyle Kessler play best known as the production from which Shia LaBeouf was fired, is, like its theatrical namesakes from Peter to Annie, lovable but a little bit lost. What was once considered a hard-edged drama is now, as directed by Daniel Sullivan at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, a comic romp. That’s an odd progression in the three decades since its premiere, but it’s not a bad one.

Treat (Ben Foster) and Phillip (Tom Sturridge) are orphaned adults living in a dilapidated North Philadelphia row house. Treat has taken on the parental role, working as a petty thief to provide for Phillip. Phillip, meanwhile, has been infantilized by his brother; he doesn’t leave the house, he doesn’t work, he can barely read. Jumping around the set like a cat, he’s nearly feral. It’s when Treat kidnaps Harold (Alec Baldwin) that this order changes. Harold, an orphan too, wriggles free of his constraints but chooses not to leave the house; instead, he becomes a father figure to the two boys.

The three performances are deeply pleasurable to watch, all slightly surrealistic. Mr. Baldwin does his usual avuncular thing to great effect. Mr. Foster is a growling, confused Treat. And Mr. Sturridge’s Phillip is the performance to remember, an awkward man-child, slowly coming into his own.

I can’t tell you quite what the lesson of Orphans is, but I can tell you it’s an awfully entertaining evening.

You’re got to give the Manhattan Theatre Club credit for knowing its audience—which is precisely those of us whose religious education reads from right to left. Assembled Parties, the new Richard Greenberg play MTC opened at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre last week, is a beautifully, hilariously written homage to a certain idealized kind of Upper West Side Jewish existence—sprawling prewars, witty repartee, secular humanist Christmas dinners—that may or may not have ever existed, that if it did is surely gone now, but that we’d all like to think is just a good rent-stabilized lease away.

It’s particularly easy to feel that way in this lush production, elegantly directed by Lynne Meadow, staged on a rotating Santo Loquasto set of Central Park West opulence, and featuring two incomparable leading ladies. Jessica Hecht plays Julie Bascov, the urbane earth mother of this comfortable home; Judith Light—note-perfect Judith Light—is her comfortable but less well-off sister-in-law. They’re women of a certain age, a certain class, and a certain time, but they’re smart and sassy and, mostly, indomitable.

But their time is passing, and they know it. Mr. Greenberg’s script is littered with allusions to lost eras, and indeed the entire play, set at a family Christmas dinner in 1980 and another in 2000, is about the inexorable passage of time and the equally inexorable forces of entropy. The happy, prosperous family of 1980 is a smaller, sadder one in 2000. The Assembled Parties is a very, very funny play that’s also a very sad one.

It’s also a bit scattered, both overplotted and underdeveloped—there’s an appetizing counter worth of enticing diversions that never seem to go anywhere, plus a few central mysteries that remain unsolved. But, sha, do I really need to bring that up? Things don’t stay good forever, The Assembled Parties tells us, so you might as well enjoy it while it lasts.

editorial@observer.com