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Flower Drum Song
by Laura Hitchcock
The flower drum throbs again in the Mark Taper Forum's world premiere of the revised version of the Rogers & Hammerstein opus. But, its song is still a 1950s musical, not the complex piece anticipated from the book written by Tony award-winner David Henry Hwang. The playwright, whose works include M. Butterfly, Golden Child and the forthcoming screenplay of A. S. Byatt's many-layered novel Possession, wanted to bring an Asian-American consciousness to the 1958 musical. Based on a 1957 novel by C. Y. Lee, which became the first bestseller by an Asian-American, the all-Oriental cast and tale was groundbreaking in its day but the musical and its 1961 film version were subsequently labeled patronizing and stereotyped.
Hwang has updated the story but has been hemmed in by the songs (including one from another R&H-er, "Pipe Dream"). Most criticized was the number "Chop Suey", which is a fake Oriental menu item created in America. Something could have been made of Americanization here but not much has been. The revision also omits one of the original's most charming songs, "Sunday Sweet Sunday."
In this version Mei-Li is not a mail order bride, but a Chinese refugee whose father died protesting Mao's Communist rule. She joins the Chinese Opera troupe of her father's colleague, Wang. Wang's troupe makes no money but his son Ta keeps the place going by producing Western nightclub acts on its off night. His star is the super-Westernized Linda Low who encourages Mei-Li to lose those baggy Chinese pajamas and Enjoy Being A Girl. The PC redirection of this familiar number appears slanted at the feminist audience.
Rejected by Ta as being too Chinese, Mei-Li goes to work in a fortune cookie factory, becomes engaged to the owner and plans to return to China with him. Ta sees China and Grant Avenue, San Francisco, with new eyes when a sleek talent agent Madame Liang converts his father from Chinese opera artist to Club Chop Suey song-and-dance man Sammy Fong.
If this were one of R&H's best musicals, you could echo the opera cliché, "We go for the music, not the story. " Though it's not the best of either, what saves the production is its tone. Because it's set in the theatre world of Chinese Opera and 1950s night clubs, the exploitative broad ambiance works.
Elements to savor include the treasure of Alvin Ing as the veteran performer Chin; the pleasure of Lea Salonga who carries the show as Mei-Li with calm strong radiance and clear voice to convey a heroine whose painful past prepared her for an unknown future; the out-there performance of Jodi Long whose Madame Liang really does straddle the sleekness of the East and the entrepreneurship of the West with her long elegant legs; the fine tenor (a little ragged on opening night) and fierce characterization of Jose Llana as Ta; the talents of director/choreographer Robert Longbottom, whose crackling pace, raffish night club numbers and dreamy Chinese opera moves keep that drum beating.
The small Taper stage makes a more intimately appropriate supper club setting than the cavernous Ahmanson, highlighted by Robin Wagner's pagoda-themed set and Brian Nason's lighting. Gregg Barnes costumes weave Oriental with 1950s styles, climaxing with a Chinese wedding in an orgasm of Breakfast at Tiffany's ensembles crossed with China Red. Come to think of it, that pretty much sums up this production.
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