Mel Sagrado and Jaygee Macapugay in Imelda
(© Carol Rosegg)
Mel Sagrado and Jaygee Macapugay in Imelda
(© Carol Rosegg)
"Well, if it worked for Evita..." These words are heard at no point during Imelda, the new musical about Imelda Marcos now at the Julia Miles Theater, courtesy of Pan-Asian Rep, yet they echo throughout this muddled expose of the former glamorous first lady of the Philippines. Unfortunately, this portrait won't do for either its subject or its creators what Evita did. Still, this insight-free musical manages to do something original: in touring through Marcos' life, it pulls off the rather bizarre feat of conflating Evita with Mary Poppins.

For those who know Imelda best for her fetishistic commitment to high fashion, the musical handily comes in on that note, singing of "the shoe mystique of Imelda Marcos." It goes out on the same note, and in between says nothing that contradicts or even shades the popular view of the woman as a shallow shopaholic. (True, there is some talk of how Imelda came from the bad branch of a good family tree, but that's about the extent of its attempts at psychology.)

Imelda (played by Jaygee Macapugay) wants to be famous, she wants things to be beautiful, and -- at least in this staging -- she has the good looks to realize those goals. Her journey to the top is nearly unobstructed. No sweaty, desperate street-fighting is ever required. In fact, Imelda shows initiative just once, when cajoling the mayor of Manila into creating a new title for her after she loses a beauty pageant. Soon after, she's handpicked by the ambitious senator Ferdinand Marcos (Mel Sagrado Maghuyop) to be the woman beside and behind him.

Because she was (kind of) a commoner, the masses expect her to fight for them. They are sorely disappointed. The "Iron Butterfly" lobbies her husband only to do away with the ugliness in their country; who cares if it means a whole lot of people will disappear in the process? Oh well, a spoonful of sugar makes the fascism go down.

The closest Imelda comes to excitement is the act one finale -- and it's not a coincidence that it's a fairly direct rip-off of Evita's "A New Argentina." (Brian Jose is rather unconvincing as the Che-like dissident.) Proving an equal opportunity copycat, Imelda borrows from other sources as well; much of the action is narrated by a girl group (Angelica-Lee Aspiras, Sacha Iskra, and Jonelle Margallo) who might as well be in Little Shop of Horrors.

Nathan Wang's music is pleasant, generic stuff -- mainly legit with occasional hints of theater rock and Asian flavoring. Aaron Coleman's lyrics are a couple of notches worse, as is Sachi Oyama's broad book. Thankfully, Tim Dang's direction and Reggie Lee's excessive choreography keep things moving. But ultimately, the musical makes the same mistake as Imelda herself did by focusing completely on the surface.