May 16, 2013

The Other Imelda Musical

The Public's new dance-club sensation Here Lies Love is pretty much as great as it's been cracked up to be (no. 2 on StageGrade, no less!), even if its retelling of the rise and fall of Imelda Marcos falters a bit in the "fall" portion; after the show's persistent party vibe has gotten under our skin, all the stuff about martial law and crushed dissent feels like a hectoring buzzkill (though, on the other hand, the show boasts a very rare asset: a near-perfect ending). Its great cast and inspired Alex Timbers staging aside, its biggest asset is David Byrne and Fatboy Slim's joyous score; though I'm not one to over-value the arrival of pop and rock stars into the theater (indie bands can be another matter), there is undeniably something special about music that's had to earn its living outside the theater being retrofitted so snugly into a theater experience. At the risk of dissing my colleagues in the musical theater trenches, there is something about great pop music that's just qualitatively more vibrant, more attractive, just all-around better than most music written expressly for theater.

My fuller review of Here Lies Love will be out soon in America, but in the meantime I got to thinking about the other Imelda musical, which began in 2005 at East West Players in Los Angeles and was staged in 2009 in an indifferently received production at New York's Pan Asian Rep. Its Los Angeles production was among the last shows I reviewed there before moving to New York:
It's just too easy to make fun of Imelda Marcos, the Filipino fashion plate whose shoe fetish and highly developed sense of personal entitlement dominated her nation's political and pop culture through more than two decades of de facto dictatorship and decadence. 
It's also pretty easy to make fun of Imelda, A New Musical, which just opened at East West Players. Like its title character, the show has an unquestionable, even endearing eagerness to please - and some pretty odd ideas about how to go about that. 
Constructed roughly on an Evita template, Imelda is a historical pageant buttressed by musical theater conventions as old as the Chocolate Hills. There are decision anthems, wish songs, makeover montages, debate duets and flashback lullabies. There are dutiful second-act reprises to remind us how far our story has come, from the needy ambitions of 1950s-era beauty queen Imelda (Liza Del Mundo) to her later incarnation as an international symbol of obscene ostentation at the side of her increasingly decrepit husband Ferdinand (Giovanni Ortega)...
Imelda, it seems, wants us to laugh at and revel in its subject's excesses - as in "Imeldific," a spirited disco breakdown in Act Two that celebrates an extravagant New York shopping excursion - while at the same time illustrating the gritty history behind the glitter.
More about the musical's gestation here.

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