Before I saw this, a work colleague asked me what I was seeing. I replied "A disco musical about Imelda Marcos written by Fatboy Slim and David Byrne". We both then burst out laughing as it sounded like I was just saying random words out loud!
It did indeed sound a mind-twanging concept, but it was one of the shows I was most looking forward to - as well as seeing what had happened to the National's Cottesloe auditorium now it has been redesigned and rechristened the Dorfman.
The Theatre has found space to fit in a new staircase, bar, cloakroom and loos, although there was still no room to swing a cat as the show was a sell-out as is the rest of it's run. The auditorium doesn't look terribly different but it was exciting to see it transformed into a club setting, the lighting cues becoming more and more urgent the closer we got to start time while the audience who had standing tickets nervously bounced from one foot to the other to the banging electro tunes.
So the set-up: David Byrne had been intrigued when he read that Imelda Marcos was a disco fan and had visited Studio 54 when in New York and had even had a floor in her NY Townhouse equipped with a disco-ball. Collaborating with Fatboy Slim, they have used this as a springboard to explore her and husband Ferdinand's rise and fall in the Philippines. Together they have crafted a fascinating piece of musical theatre quite unlike anything else thanks to the imagination of director Alex Timbers.
Imelda's story is told using an excellent score, projections, lighting and a shape-shifting set of platforms that move around the auditorium floor. Bizarrely, apart from the music and staging, Imelda's trajectory follows that of Eva Peron's in EVITA - poor girl makes good in the big city then meets politician with an eye on the prize, she rises to become the President's wife and, while inspiring great love among voters, is adept at turning a blind eye to the violent cracking down on any dissent.
Unlike the sexist approach to EVITA however, here at least there is an attempt at understanding the hunger that drove Imelda to strive for more as well as view her with sympathy in relation to her marriage to Ferdinand, who seemed to view it more like a business take-over. One can then understand her anger when the Western actress Ferdinand was keeping as a mistress went public with covert tapes of their lovemaking when he dumped her.
With Ferdinand's health in decline, Imelda seized her opportunity to woo world leaders to do business with the Philippines and to also take a bigger grasp of the political reins.
The interesting facet to her story was that the Marcos' opponent Ninoy Aquino had been Imelda's boyfriend when she first arrived in Manilla, allegedly dumping her because she was too tall. This gives the politics an intriguing soap opera element. My knowledge of Imelda Marcos was minimal so it was all an education to me!
For such a far-reaching subject, there are only four main characters in the show: Imelda, Ferdinand, Ninoy and Estrella, Imelda's maid who was her only friend in a loveless home. She later ran foul of Imelda when she spoke to a reporter of her former friend's humble beginnings which ran counter to the official Marcos version - she was kept under house arrest for her pains.
The score gets darker as the Marcos grip on the people gets tighter until Ninoy Aquino is assassinated on the airport tarmac minutes after arriving back from exile in America. We then leap three years to the Peace Revolution which brought down the Marcos regime in only four days. This is done simply but very effectively by having the theatrics stop and with just the house lights on, a trio from the ensemble sing the song GOD DRAWS STRAIGHT. This ends the show but you can't keep a bad girl down and Imelda reprises HERE LIES LOVE, a fantastic show song which lodges itself in your memory as soon as you hear it. The title comes from an interview when Imelda was asked what she wanted inscribed on her tombstone.
The production was an astonishing combination of theatrical storytelling: music, choreography, lighting and performance melding together to make an unforgettable experience. David Byrne and Fatboy Slim's score pulses and blares with energy but the attention never slips when the pace or tone gets slower or darker.
Natalie Mendoza was electric as Imelda, effortlessly moving from ingenue to diva with an unstoppable energy that could power the whole of the Philippines. If the supporting cast don't have quite the same opportunity to shine, it doesn't stop them making impressions: Mark Bautista as a slick Ferdinand, Dean John-Wilson as an impassioned Aquino and Gia Macuja Atchison as the increasingly invisible Estrella.
The ensemble worked every minute of the show and Frances Mayli McCann and Li-Tong Hsu caught the attention in their solos as the Mistress and Aquino's mother respectively.
It would be great if the show could come back in some way as it is sold out until it closes in early January. More people should have the opportunity to experience this remarkable show.