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The Second Act for Art Share

The Shoe Queen Shakes It



The Shoe Queen Shakes It

East West Players' Guilty Pleasure Musical Is Entertaining but Awkward

by Rob Kendt

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.

Imelda Marcos is the subject of a new production - a musical no less - in Little Tokyo. Photo by Michael Lamont.

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).

Our tour guides along this bumpy path are three tireless "muses" (Ramona DuBarry, Blythe Matsui, Annie Katsura Rollins), who change costumes, wigs and dance styles with nearly every scene. When they're not simply narrating or giving Greek-chorus commentary, they take on the personae of beauty pageant contestants, floorshow hostesses at the "Imelda Marcos Shoe Boutique," nightclub dancers, even a version of Macbeth's weird sisters.

These protean three are not only the show's real stars; they're the key to its sunny, slightly clueless tone, which alternates between intentional and unintentional cheesiness without losing its ear-to-ear, show-must-go-on smile. 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.

It's winkingly witty when Imelda introduces her dancing sidekicks in "Martial Law... With a Smile": orange-jumpsuited security men with bejewelled CIA logos on their backs. The production number "East West" also lays the irony on thick, with Imelda appearing in one of her eye-scarring shoulder-flare dresses as peasants try vainly to watch her antics - and hear a supportive speech by her new buddy, then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan - on a broken-down television set.

Other laughs, at least among the opening-night audience, were probably not intended: When we are presented with a pathetic tableau of the dejected poor of the Manila streets, for instance, or when Imelda is attacked in dramatic slo-mo by a knife-wielding assassin.

Even when the show's mock-epic theatrics don't draw laughs, they're pretty silly. A visit to Imelda's hospital bed showcases an argument in song between Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino (Antoine Reynaldo Diel), the star journalist-turned-opposition leader who functions as the show's dowdy conscience, and the stubborn Ferdinand. "If I had raised the butterfly," they both sing, with Imelda as their ostensible subject of dispute. Meanwhile a pair of backlit shadow boxers spar behind her bed; their fight, which seems to represent the interior battle between the Philippines' Spanish and native heritages, ends in a draw.

Director Tim Dang and the show's creators do offer some tantalizing glimpses of substance and some just-right theatrical flourishes. A few production numbers end with the officious Imelda - played by Del Mundo as a thickheaded, often delightfully subversive spoiled brat playing a high-stakes game of dress-up - sending chorus members scurrying like houseboys to set up the next scene.

And the Ninoy-Imelda relationship, embroidered here into a purported youthful friendship gone sour, gives later scenes some poignance, particularly in a telling gift-giving contrast: The imprisoned Ninoy can only muster a handmade "cross of twigs" for his loyal wife Corazon (Myra Cris Ocenar), while Imelda waltzes in with armfuls of boxes from her latest spending spree, offering the ailing Ferdinand a bathrobe he bitterly rejects. It ain't subtle, but it works.

Nathan Wang's poppy score has some sweeping, driving high points that are matched in ambition by Dang's direction and Reggie Lee's choreography. We meet strapping young war hero Ferdinand in the rap-flavored "Maharlika," and the first act climax, "Like God," whips the show into a convincing pop-opera frenzy, as the Marcoses impose their would-be permanent reign and Ninoy takes up residence behind bars. Wang leads his live six-piece band, and the singers, with effective vigor, effortlessly incorporating Latin rhythms under Aaron Coleman's mostly felicitous lyrics.

But for every percolating dance number there's an indifferent power ballad drenched in tinkly electric piano. Imelda, who thinks of herself as the guiding star her people need to look up to, is visited at key crisis points by her sainted mother, who sings sweet homilies and concludes with some long-overdue advice about that out-of-control shoe collection: "You only need one pair."

Such moments of piercing clarity are too few and far between in the entertaining but awkward Imelda. Like Manila's infamous Marikina City Footwear Museum, which now displays much of the former first lady's outsized collection, the pleasures offered by Imelda are both glitzy and guilty.

Imelda: A New Musical plays in the David Henry Hwang Theater through June 19. At 120 Judge John Aiso St., (213) 625-7000 or eastwestplayers.org.

page 20, 5/16/2005
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