For all its limitations, a fascinating attempt to look back in ambivalent anger.
Despite its obvious aspirations, “Imelda” will never be mistaken for “Evita.” The music is too monotonous, the lyrics too bland, the book too simplistic and the production values too soft. But the bio-musical (which originated in Los Angeles with East West Players) does have a sensational subject in Imelda Marcos, the “Steel Butterfly” of the Philippines and a lady who really liked to shop. For all its limitations, the show is a fascinating attempt on the part of Filipino and other Asian artists to look back in ambivalent anger and sorrow on a national icon.
There’s a terrific song in act two called “Martial Law With a Smile” that offers a taste of what a tough little show “Imelda” might have been, had its creatives the stomach for it. After taking a few swipes at its Asian neighbors (“Rebellion’s sweeping Malaysia/Korea’s split in two/Japan’s unleashed the Red Army/Jakarta’s out of rice”), the song goes on to sing the praises of the Philippines under martial law. No dirt, no drugs, no crime, no corruption — but also no congress, no newspapers, no free speech and no democracy.
Nathan Wang’s music has a nasty little bounce, and while the irony of Aaron Coleman’s lyrics may be a little thick, that’s the fun of it. Jaygee Macapugay, who has been pretty much carrying the show on her back in the title role, finally relaxes her jaw on “Martial Law,” visibly delighted to have a song that allows her to show some intelligence.
Macapugay brings a pleasant voice and a charming manner to the character of Imelda Marcos. Those natural gifts work best in songs (like “Wear a Pretty Bow” and “A Beautiful Place”) that emphasize the First Lady’s wistful, if grandiose notion of herself as the dainty “butterfly” who brought beauty and culture to her country.
But there are far too many scenes in Sachi Oyama’s book and too many songs in the score (like “The Education of Imelda” and “If I Had Raised the Butterfly”) about how that pretty butterfly allowed herself to be manipulated by her first love, Ninoy Aquino (a much-too-stern Brian Jose), and corrupted by her tyrannical lord and master, President Ferdinand Marcos (a much-too-soft Mel Sagrado Maghuyop).
Like the shrewd and powerful woman she plays, Macapugay is far better off when she can show some steel, as she does in “Martial Law” and in the scary final number, “Like God,” when she can flip her wig on Evita-esque lyrics like: “I’m glorious/Radiant/Bright as the Sun/I’m God!”
Speaking of wigs, Leslie F. Espinosa has done wonders with those rigid brain-helmets, which are also well-matched to Ivy Chou’s structured period costumes. But the stylistic rigidity extends to both music and choreography, which fail to take the show from the 1940s, when the Philippines attained independence, to 1986, when the dictatorial Marcos regime was deposed in an election that brought Corazon Aquino (Liz Casasola) to power.
As for those 3,000 pairs of shoes famously found in Imelda’s wardrobe when she and her husband fled the palace before the angry populace could get their hands on them, they are in the show and should take a bow.