Fresh from New York, this musical collaboration between David Byrne of Talking Heads and DJ Fatboy Slim is all about Imelda Marcos, and here the parallels between this show and ‘Evita’, the Lloyd Webber-Rice show about Eva Peron may begin to show.
The nugget which gave birth to this disco spectacular was the news that Mrs Marcos had her own glitterball and dance floor in her Manila mansion, and this gave Byrne the idea to build a libretto which uses bits of speeches, letters and found footage to build lyrics which tell a story. The selling point which is new and different is the inclusion of the audience members in the ‘pit’ (here the stalls of the new Dorfman Theatre, formerly known as the Cottesloe, with seats removed and moving platforms added) who line dance, jump around, and interact with the actors at key moments.
Imelda Marcos was born in 1929 and was dirt poor until hooking the big fish, president-to-be Ferdinand (1917-1989). Before that romance (which gives rise to the bouncy song ‘Eleven Days’, referring to their odd courtship where they met once, she was showered with trinkets for a week and a bit, and then she married the guy) she was in love with Ninoy Aquino (1932-1983), who jilted her because she was ‘too tall’ and later reappears at various points in the musical to castigate her behaviour much in the way Che did with Evita.
You don’t need to understand too much about Filipino history to enjoy this musical, although at certain times a memory of real events was stirred, especially towards the end where the Marcos are forced to flee during the People’s Peaceful Revolution, which led to Cory Aquino (1933-2009), widow of Ninoy, assuming the presidency. The songs will help you along throughout their history, and that of Imelda’s childhood friend and nanny, Estrella.
Politics occasionally rears its head, as masked figures evoke world leaders like Reagan who were personal friends of Marcos – other key moments are shown in video projections, some of the actors re-imagining real events, some of Imelda Marcos herself. There is pulsating music, disco lights (largely pink), and a lot of energy. The songs themselves, though, are a bit underpowered at times, the opener being sickly sweet, the title song sounding a little bit like the Neil Diamond classic ‘Sweet Caroline’, and others which show promise – ‘The Rose of Tacloban’, ‘When She Passed By’, ‘Order 1081’ – in danger of getting lost in the sea of dancing bodies. ‘Why Don’t You Love Me’ simply evoked memories of the Spamalot spoof ‘A Song Like This’.
Still, there is much to enjoy here, and the leading actors – former Saigon Kim, Natalie Mendoza as Imelda, Gia Macuja Atchison as Estrella, Dean-John Wilson as Aquino, Mark Bautista as Marcos – are on good form. I wasn’t sure about the use of real transcripts of calls to move the plot along, but the sound mix is fine, the lyrics are audible, and from centre circle, where we were, we got an excellent view of the action and the inspired choreography.