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Flower Drum Song by Elyse Sommer

We'll give the tourists what they want --
but we'll have the last laugh

---Madame Liang, the agent-entrepreneur who engineers the transformation of the poorly attended Chinese Opera theater into the Club Chop Suey where the entertainment, like chop suey, dishes up what non-Asians perceive as authentically Chinese.
How do playwrights turned adapters choose what to adapt? In the case of Rodgers & Hammerstein's FLower Drum Song as re-architected by David Henry Hwang, you need only consider the plays freshly minted from his own imagination to see why he was drawn to Rodger and Hammerstein's Chinese variation of Life With Father even though it has long been relegated to the second tier of their musical hit factory. His Golden Child (see link at end), which pursued the same theme of old country traditions brought face to face with change as part of the assimilation process, is a notable case in point.

The changes Hwang has wrought, while far from trivial (they include re-positioning and eliminating songs in addition to changing plot and characters), have wisely left the original time frame in place. Why wisely? Because by sticking to the late 1950s period Hwang and director-choreographer Robert Longbottom were able to keep numbers like "Chop Suey" and milk it for its razzle-dazzle fun while using its condescending stereotyping as a springboard to satirize attitudes towards Asians. As Madame Liang (Jodi Long), now a former Hollywood extra turned pushy show-biz agent puts it "We'll give the tourists what they want -- but we'll have the last laugh."

There are other plot and character changes: Mei-Li (Lea Solonga) comes to San Francisco, not as a mail order bride but as a refugee orphaned by Communist China's oppression. To start her new life, she seeks out her father's friend Wang (Randall Duk Kim), who now runs a failing Chinese opera house which dips one foot into the Western world on the one night Wang's son Ta (Jose Llana) turns it into a rent-paying night club act. That club's star, Linda Low (Sandra Allen), is his idea of love American style. The already mentioned agent-entrepreneur manages a double transformantion: the failing opera house into a Chinatown hot spot and the tradition-bound Wang into an enthusiastic Club Chop Suey performer and her potentiaal fifth husband. Not surprisingly, dad's assimilation has a backlash effect on Ta and makes him realize that Mei-Li , is his true love -- though not until she almost goes off to Hong Kong with a fellow refugee and worker at the fortune cookie factory where she goes to work after realizing her love for Ta is one-sided.

The plot is hokey and predictable but if Rodgers & Hammerstein could leave that corner of Great Beyond reserved for musical theater luminaries, they would undoubtedly be taken aback to see some rather stark scenes interjected into their typically upbeat show. Nonetheless, except for the poor timing of the show's one stick-to-the-ears anthem, "A Hundred Million Miracles," (it immediately follows Mei-Li's father being hauled away to a certain death), the refugee angle works quite well. The evocation of the Mei-Lei and other boat people traveling from China to the U.S. is beautifully staged on Robin Wagner's single unit set which in addition to the China and boat trip scenes handily accomodates the Opera House-Nightclub and other settings, as well as David Chase's excellent Flower Drum Song Orchestra. All this without a puff of artifical smoke or other razzamatazz special effects.

The razzamatazz of this revisical owes much to the production numbers Kenneth Tynan disdainfully described as "world of woozy song" from which Hwang's revision have removed the politically incorrect stigma. Also contributing heavily to the show's fun are Gregg Barnes' marvelously witty costumes (especially the eye-popping black and red outfits in the "Fan Tan Fannie" and all China Red wedding costumes). And, of course, there are the pleasures derived from the performances. Unlike 1958, when the shortage of Asian actors and singers made casting something of a nightmare, we currently have a rich pool of Pan Asian talent that is currently evident not only via the leads but the high-stepping ensemble.

The cast holdovers from the sold out Mark Taper production still deserve the praise Laura Hitchcock heaped on them in her review. Lea Salonga remains the show's strong-voiced center, though the vivacious long-limbed Sandra Allen's Linda Low often threatens to steal the show. Jodi Long's Madame Liang again embodies the assimilation of Eastern sleekeness and Western entrepreneurship. Alvin Ing, who toured with the original FDS and participated in more productions than any other actor, is back to charm us with his single solo, "My Best Love." To add to the performing assets, the Broadway FDS has a terrific Wang in Randall Duk Kim.

Ultimately, Flower Drum Song remains light, heavily sugar-coated rather than grand entertainment. The amusement stemming from a brand-new character, the swishy Harvard (Allen Liu), tends to feel wedged in rather than organic, as do some of the clunky Chinese jokes. But its not any of these missteps that keep this new-fangled Flower Drum Song, from standing alongside Rodger & Hammerstein's top tier hits. While Hwang was able to update the story and chop and re-arrange the musical ingredients, the songs per se were unalterable -- some charming, but none leaving the indelible imprint that will make just hearing the tile will pop the melodies and lyrics into your ears. Still, even with more songs from the Group B than the Group A menu options, Flower Drum Song adds up to a bright and exuberant two and a half hours for audiences from nine to ninety.

Flower Drum Song at the Mark Taper Forum
Golden Child at its Public Theatre premiere

FLowr Drum Song

Music: Richard Rodgers
Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II
Book: David Henry Hwang
Based on the novel by C. Y. Lee
Director/Choreographer: Robert Longbottom
Music Adaptation and Direction: David Chase
Cast: Lea Salonga (Mei-Li), Jose Llana (Ta), Sandra Allen (Linda Low), Randall Duk Kim (Wang), Alvin Ing (Chin), Allen Liu (Harvard), Jodi Long (Madame Liang) and Hoon Lee (Chao).
Ensemble:Rich Ceraulo, Eric Chan, Marcus Choi, Ma-Anne Dionisio, Emily Hsu, Telly Leung, J. Elaine Marcos, Daniel May, Marc Oka, Laurie Sakakura, Yra Takara, Kim Varhola, Ericka Yang.
Set Design: Robin Wagner
Costume Design: Gregg Barnes
Lighting Design: Natasha Katz
Sound Design: ACME Sound Partners
Orchestrations: Don Sebesky
Hair Design: David Brian Brown
Chinese Opera Consultant: Jamie H. J. Guan
Associate Choreographer: Darlene Wilson
Running time: 2 hours and 35 minutes, includes one 15-minute intermission
Virginia, 245 W. 52d St. (7th/8th Avs) 212-239-6200 web site
Previews from 9/23/02; opening 10/17/02
Tue - Sat 8pm, Wed-Sat 2pm, Sun 3pm $20-$100.
>Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on October 23rd performance.
Last Performance 3/16/03
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Prologue: A Hundred Million Miracles/Mei-Li & Company
  • I Am Going to Like It Here/Mei-Li
  • I Enjoy Being a Girl/Linda Low & Company
  • You Are Beautiful/Ta & Mei-Li
  • Grant Avenue/Madame Liang & Company
  • Sunday/Ta
  • Gliding Through My Memoree/Wang & Company
Act Two
  • Chop Suey/Wang & Company
  • Dont Marry Me/Madame Liang & Wang
  • Love, Look Away/Mei-Li
  • Like a God/Ta
  • Finale: A Hundred Million Miracles/Company
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