Imelda Marcos’s strong will and gaudy outerwear earned her the sobriquet “the steel butterfly.” An image of that vivid insect graces the stage of Imelda, a new musical produced by the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre. Of course, some translate that nickname as “the iron butterfly”—and what a musical that might have inspired! (Just imagine Imelda belting out “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”) Instead, writers Sachi Oyama, Nathan Wang, and Aaron Coleman offer a show too well-mannered to qualify as camp, too soggy to play as satire. This portrait of the Philippines’s former first lady and inveterate shoe collector should be stiletto-heel-sharp, but it falls ballet flat.
The opening number encourages audiences to “look beyond 3,000 pairs of shoes” and “the Imelda Marcos shoe mystique.” But in place of that multi-hued footwear, the writers supply a trite tale of an ambitious girl who allies herself to power. After losing a beauty contest, Imelda (Jaygee Macapugay) weds the vaguely sinister Senator Marcos (Mel Sagrado Maghuyop). (His idea of a pickup line: “I think of a woman as a horse.”) Over the years, she calcifies into the power-suited and bouffant-haired gorgon one recognizes from magazine covers—but it isn’t much of a transformation. Her one-time swain, Benigno Aquino, sings of the young girl, “Your beauty’s in your soul,” but neither the book writer nor Macapugay ever convinces us that she has one.
The poperetta score includes songs about martial law, shopping, and the importance of charming hair accessories. Director Tim Dang’s cast performs with great sincerity, but to little avail. At least the real Imelda continues strong. In a recent interview with the Asian Pacific Post, she expressed little remorse. Smiling, she said, “I have more shoes now than before.” She then advised the reporter: “Be Imeldific.”