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Flower Drum Song (10/17/2002 - 03/16/2003)


 

New York Daily News: "It's a full-coarse Chinese musical"

In the 1970s, New York went through a revolution whose reverberations are still being felt. I'm talking about the introduction of Szechuan and Hunan cooking to our Chinese restaurants. These hot and pungent cuisines, which appealed to our culinary machismo, displaced the more delicate Cantonese cooking and led to a coarsening of the White Devils' palates, my own included. The end result of this transformation in taste is the current revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1958 "Flower Drum Song," a spicier but ultimately coarser treatment of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco, circa 1960. Based on C. Y. Lee's novel, the original featured a book by Joseph Fields and Hammerstein. The musical, then and now, is about the tension between centuries-old traditions and the temptations of the New World. In David Henry Hwang's new adaptation, the battleground is a theater where Wang, who learned Chinese opera in China, presents it to empty houses in San Francisco. One night a week his son, Ta, turns it into a nightclub. With the help of Liang, a former Hollywood actress turned talent agent, the nightclub becomes the hottest spot in San Francisco, and Wang its star. Club Chop Suey, as it's called, is an apt image for the conflict of the generations. It is also the scene for most of the show's brassy humor - less coy, but more vulgar and, I suspect, no less stereotyped than the original. The love stories that were the spine of the original - and that inspired such songs as "You Are Beautiful" and "Love, Look Away" - here seem perfunctory. Ta loves Linda Low, who sings "I Enjoy Being a Girl," but he eventually woos Mei-Li, the gentle girl who adores him. Hwang starts the story, quite stirringly, in China during the Great Cultural Revolution, when Mei-Li's father rips up Mao's Little Red Book, leading to his arrest. He urges her to flee, which she does. This opening, dramatically choreographed by Robert Longbottom, who also directed this production, suggests a seriousness the show does not sustain. Its grittiest scenes involve Mei-Li's fellow refugee, Chao, who loves her. As this brief summary suggests, Hwang has set a lot of dishes spinning. You would need a more experienced director than Longbottom to keep them on their poles. Individual scenes, especially the production numbers, work well, but the main story is never persuasive. (Even Wang's abrupt shift from classical actor to crude comic is barely believable.) The cast is splendid. Lea Salonga makes a lovely, winsome Mei-Li. The new plot doesn't set up "Love, Look Away" effectively, nor does she give it much emotional subtext. Here it makes its effect with overamplification. Randall Duk Kim uses all his resources to make Wang endearing rather than a buffoon. Jodi Long is wickedly hilarious as Liang, Hwang's funniest creation. Sandra Allen is a dynamic Linda, belting "I Enjoy Being a Girl" with true pizzazz. As Wang's friend, Alvin Ing sings a song cut from the original production, "My Best Love," with great warmth. The handsome Jose Llana seems a bit too callow to imagine Linda could take him seriously, but he sings beautifully. Allen Liu is funny as Harvard, a character who drew insiders' laughter from the many Asian-Americans in the house. Hoon Lee is excellent as the gruff Chao. Robin Wagner's unit set evokes Chinese restaurants of yore but also serves as an impressive backdrop for the show's grander intentions. Gregg Barnes' costumes reflect the show's split personality, sometimes refined, sometimes deliberately tacky. Don Sebesky's orchestrations capture the great score sharply and wittily. A musical high point is an a cappella rendition of "I Am Going to Like It Here. "

In the last minutes of the show, the all-Asian cast declare, one by one, where they were born. A few were born in China, one in Hong Kong. Most are from America. This touching moment reflects the Melting Pot theme that underscored the original. Nothing so simple unites this entertaining, albeit vulgar, revival, which reinforces one's sense that nowadays Broadway can do showbiz themes smashingly. Less glitzy things, alas, elude it.


New York Daily News
10/18/2002

New York Post: "Humdrum 'Song'"

Rodgers & Hammerstein's venerable Chinese doll of a musical, "Flower Drum Song," returned sprightly enough to Broadway last night - prancing to the sound of a different drummer, though singing the same old song.

This time, distinguished Chinese-American playwright David Henry Hwang provided a new book, the original one - by Oscar Hammerstein and Joseph Fields, itself based on a novel of San Francisco's Chinatown by Chin Y. Lee - having been deemed politically incorrect.

What I recall best about the original show, apart from the lovely, underrated score, is Ken Tynan's wickedly funny remark. Referring to the then-popular play "The World of Susie Wong," he dubbed the musical, "The World of Woozy Song."

The plot had something to do with a mail-order Chinese bride and great confusion about the old ways and the new country. It was a complex and uninvolving story and not particularly helpful to the musical.

Hwang has set his new plot in 1960 - pretty much the same time - but the new dialogue, largely abandoning Hammerstein's cross-generational concerns, is totally different.

Unfortunately, although the story is clearer it also is far less credible. Nor does it absorb us in the way of, say, "Oklahoma!" or "Carousel."

This time the heroine is a refugee who's escaped over Chairman Mao's bamboo curtain to find a new life in San Francisco. The hero works in his father's traditional Peking Opera company, being allowed to use the theater as an Asian girlie club once a week.

The general feeling the first time around was the musical was only minor Rodgers & Hammerstein - and today it still is.

But what the past half-century of musical theater has taught us is that even minor Rodgers & Hammerstein is pretty damn good.

Robert Longbottom's stolid, solid, unexceptional staging, is much helped by Gregg Barnes' glitzy costumes and Robin Wagner's versatile setting, based on one of the arches found at the entrance of Chinatowns the world over.

Unfortunately, Longbottom also fancies himself a choreographer, and one is grateful that the dream ballet, originally choreographed by Gene Kelly, has been omitted.

The cast is good but short on pizazz. Lea Salonga ("Miss Saigon") plays the refugee Mei-Li with a wan charm, and Jose Llana sings well while giving the indecisive hero probably more dash than he deserves.

The best performance is given by Sandra Allen, as a Chinese-American chorine determined to get the best out of life and the show.

She also gets to sing that great little number, "I Enjoy Being a Girl." Girl?

Is that politically correct? Oh well.


New York Post
10/18/2002

New York Times: "New Coat of Paint for Old Pagoda"

If any girl needed a makeover in the competitive, fast-changing world of big-time musicals, it was Mei-Li, the winsome little heroine of Rodgers and Hammerstein's ''Flower Drum Song.'' As embodied by Miyoshi Umeki in the original Broadway and film versions of the show some 40 years ago, this newly arrived Chinese immigrant was so quaintly modest, it was scary, with her downcast eyes and submissive stoop. What's more, she kept saying embarrassing things like ''My back is wet'' (read: ''I'm a wetback'') in a thick accent.

Well, baby, look at you now. Though still wearing humble Chinese garb and pretending to be cowed by this alien land called America, the Mei-Li who presides over the thoroughly revised revival of ''Flower Drum Song,'' which opened last night at the Virginia Theater with a new book by David Henry Hwang, is a creature as transformed as Eliza Doolittle in the final scene in ''Pygmalion.''

With Lea Salonga, of ''Miss Saigon'' fame, in the role, Mei-Li's posture and gaze are now ruler-edge straight, her speech as crisp and confident as a television anchorwoman's. Striking tai chi poses in a Mao suit in her opening number, she might be auditioning for the new, improved Charlie's Angels team.

Never mind that in shedding her old passivity and stock picturesqueness she has also given up all evidence of a personality to call her own. The same can be said of most of what surrounds her onstage.

Now as then, ''Flower Drum Song,'' set in San Francisco's Chinatown, considers the plight of a people wavering between old ways and new, between tradition and innovation. That the show, which was staged in Los Angeles last year by the Mark Taper Forum and is directed and choreographed by Robert Longbottom, seems mired in a comparable identity crisis is not a happy instance of form reflecting content.

Certainly you can feel the honorable intentions behind the creative team's effort to resuscitate a work regarded as terminally out of date. But equally evident is the strain in transforming cute and cozy ethnic types from the Broadway production of 1958 into a set of positive Asian role models that might be introduced into a public school presentation in 2002.

Here, just so you'll get the idea, are two instances of new uses to which the old songs have been put. ''A Hundred Million Miracles,'' a typically sweet, late Rodgers and Hammerstein anthem of hope, acquires a surprising somberness when, in the show's prologue, it accompanies a pantomime in which refugees flee Mao's China as boat people.

And ''I Am Going to Like It Here,'' a valentine to American culture, is now a bleak reprise for a group of oppressed workers in a fortune-cookie factory.

Finding the shadows within the sunniness of Rodgers and Hammerstein can be a fruitful endeavor. Think of the Royal National Theater's recent reinterpretations in London of ''Carousel'' and ''Oklahoma!,'' or even the Broadway revival of ''The King and I.''

''Flower Drum Song'' was devised as a novelty diversion at a time when Richard Rodgers was feeling creatively drained, and he referred to it as his ''accidental hit.'' There is not, to be truthful, a lot of depth to be plumbed in the score, which is second-tier Rodgers and tends to echo his confectionary hits from shows like ''South Pacific'' and ''The King and I.''

His use of repetitive Eastern musical structures gives the numbers a sing-song catchiness that, for better or worse, exerts a sticky hold on the memory. (If I am discovered unconscious with a sledgehammer in my hand, it will be because I have been unable to purge ''A Hundred Million Miracles'' from my mind.)

In a famously scathing review in The New Yorker, Kenneth Tynan described the show as ''a stale Broadway confection wrapped up in spurious Chinese trimmings.'' (The characters' pidgin English inspired Tynan to propose a song that would begin, ''Baby talk, keep talking baby talk.'') And the most enthusiastic adjective that Brooks Atkinson came up with in The New York Times was ''pleasant.'' Nonetheless, the show ran for 600 performances and was made into a flashy film.

Mr. Hwang saw the movie as a boy, and he has written eloquently about its effect upon him at a time when Chinese-Americans were scantly represented in popular culture. You can sense his residual affection for the show in his reworking of it, as if he were trying to present a stuffed animal from his childhood as a living beast.

He has gone back to the original novel by C. Y. Lee to glean more sober historical detail and conflict, and he has reshaped the story to elucidate two of his own abiding thematic interests: the idea of the theater as a prism for society and the generational clashes of diversely assimilated immigrants.

This has meant combining and in some cases completely transforming the original cast of characters. Mei-Li no longer arrives in San Francisco as a timid mail-order bride with her wise, ancient father; she is instead a self-possessed Mao youth, with plenty of traditional wisdom of her own, whose father was executed for dissidence. (We see him tearing up a copy of a familiar-looking little red book.)

In San Francisco she is taken up by a family friend, Wang (Randall Duk Kim), who runs a Chinese opera house, and his son, Ta (Jose Llana), who wants to turn the place into a swinging nightclub. By the show's end, the men's positions as defenders of the old and the new will have been turned on their heads. In the meantime Mei-Li pines for Ta, who has eyes for the sassy chanteuse Linda Low (Sandra Allen), and Wang strikes up a relationship with a pushy press agent named Madame Liang (Jodi Long).

The idea of the opera-house-slash-nightclub as a metaphor for a changing culture, like the cabaret of ''Cabaret,'' is intriguing. And Mr. Hwang, Mr. Longbottom and David Chase, the show's music adapter and supervisor, use the concept of a show within a show to keep a wry distance from period-piece songs like ''I Enjoy Being a Girl.''

Well, kind of. This ''Flower Drum'' wants to crumble its fortune cookie and eat it, too. Like Robin Wagner's all-in-one set and Gregg Barnes's costumes, the production numbers seem stranded between sardonic kitsch and sincere showmanship. Mr. Longbottom, who used theatrical imagery much more evocatively in ''Sideshow,'' here draws ambivalently on his experiences as a choreographer for the Rockettes.

A dance in which leggy chorines show up in giant takeout food cartons should be a hoot. Yet because the show's satiric point of view is so muddled, there's no verve in such numbers, no joy in the performing of them.

There are jokes that send up the ways Chinese-Americans pandered to American tastes. (A nightclub M.C. announces that MSG stands for ''more stunning girls.'') Yet they are no worse than the sitcom-variety wit that the characters speak offstage. ''Whoever invented the phrase 'slow boat to China' never met you.'' Or, ''If our ancestors could see us now, they'd just die.''

Listening to such lines, you remember that Mr. Hwang also contributed to the puerile humor of Disney's ''Aida.''

It seems appropriate that when Mei-Li has something momentous to say to Ta, she hands him a fortune cookie. (Its message: ''A man cannot love others until he learns to love himself.'') A similar epigrammatic quality, steeped in the current gospels of self-esteem and self-empowerment, infuses the more serious dialogue.

The attractive Ms. Salonga and Mr. Llana sing prettily and feelingly (although you get a bit tired of seeing Ms. Salonga planting herself center stage, eyes on the balcony, for her solos). The overall effect is as if the second romantic leads of classic Rodgers and Hammerstein -- like Rolf and Liesl in ''The Sound of Music'' or Tuptim and Lun Tha in ''The King and I'' -- had been pushed into the foreground. They do not withstand such scrutiny.

Mr. Kim seems to have a good time in his more antic comic moments, though you could imagine him fitting in comfortably in a television show like ''Three's Company.'' Alvin Ing brings an engaging effortlessness to the role of the sly Uncle Chin. Ms. Allen is an appealingly saucy Linda, though she gets lost in the big production numbers. The stand-out, however, is Ms. Long, who brings an authentic (and appropriate) touch of Broadway brass to the newly invented role of a jaded promoter.

There is also, by the way, another new character: Harvard (Allen Liu), a swishy gay costume designer and a font of the pastel humor found on sitcoms like ''Will and Grace.'' Mr. Hwang has said that in researching this show, ''I began to realize that one generation's breakthroughs often become the next generation's stereotypes.'' Evidently, some breakthroughs turn into stereotypes faster than others.


New York Times
10/18/2002

USA Today: "Sweetness enlightens Flower Drum Song"

I've read several articles lately carping about the lack of sophistication in Broadway musicals. To which I say, phooey. Intellectual acuity shouldn't matter as much as visceral impact in any art form, let alone one in which everyday people break into song and dance at regular intervals.

No two people understood this better than Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Though their musicals tackled such provocative issues as racism and domestic abuse, Rodgers' melodies and Hammerstein's lyrics touched hearts in ways that transcended thoughtful analysis.

David Henry Hwang respected that legacy, to a fault, in penning a new text for the revival of Flower Drum Song, which opened Thursday at Broadway's Virginia Theatre.

The playwright did radically revise Hammerstein and Joseph Fields' 1958 libretto, so that the themes of cultural assimilation and generational conflict are addressed with more gravity. Set in 1960, the new story follows a young Chinese woman whose father has been imprisoned by the Maoist government. Mei-Li, played with demure pluck by Lea Salonga, finds refuge in an opera house in San Francisco's Chinatown, then falls for the owner's son, who wants to turn the joint into a Western-style nightclub.

But for all its political overtones, Hwang's script is as rife with romantic and ethnic clichés as the original, arguably the fluffiest of Hammerstein's librettos. A winking irony accompanies songs such as Chop Suey, performed here with dancers in giant Chinese takeout cartons. But the dialogue can be surprisingly flat, and character development often seems contrived.

Luckily, Hwang and director/choreographer Robert Longbottom have retained the show's irresistible sweetness and added more of the unabashed grandeur that distinguishes Rodgers and Hammerstein's best-loved material. And David Chase's new adaptations of Rodgers' music, much of which is presented in new contexts, are rapturous.

The show's lovely, shamelessly sentimental final sequence ensures that at least half the audience will leave the theater in tears. Flower Drum Song still isn't the brightest bauble in Rodgers and Hammerstein's jewel box, but its warm spirit has aged well.


USA Today
10/17/2002

Variety: "Flower Drum Song"

The best intentions and a lot of sincere effort can't succeed in dispelling the scent of mothballs from this much-anticipated staging of "Flower Drum Song," a painstaking reinvention of the 1958 musical that concludes Broadway's participation in the Richard Rodgers centennial on a tinny note. Attempting to restore the natural aroma to a bouquet of largely forgotten Rodgers & Hammerstein tunes, this ambitious undertaking has to settle for something closer to Glade air freshener.

The last item on the menu in Broadway's yearlong celebration of the 100th birthday of Rodgers (Broadway has already hosted revivals of "Oklahoma!" and "The Boys From Syracuse"), this is also the most historically significant. "Flower Drum Song" is the only one of the major R&H shows that hasn't previously been given a first-class revival. A cluttered book, a stereotypical approach to its Asian-American characters and a score that doesn't match the best of R&H are the very defensible reasons for the show's absence from major stages over the past four decades.

But even this second-rank Rodgers & Hammerstein score contains a lot of first-rate music, and in the interest of giving it a new lease on life, the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization granted David Henry Hwang permission to concoct an entirely new book. Hwang, the country's foremost Asian-American playwright, has written extensively on themes that were integral to the original (itself based on a novel by C.Y. Lee): the conflicts between first-generation immigrants and their descendants, the internal battles Asian-Americans wage between a desire to assimilate into a new culture and a reverence for traditions inherited from the old. He has also admitted to an affection for the movie version of the musical, which he describes as "a guilty pleasure" for Asian-Americans of his generation.

Perhaps that affection is the problem, for the most odd and lamentable aspect of Broadway's new "Flower Drum Song" is the fustiness of Hwang's book, a compendium of cardboard characters and corny jokes that can only be identified as a new product from its frequent anachronisms (definitely not said in 1960: "Foot binding -- what was that all about?").

In collaboration with director-choreographer Robert Longbottom, Hwang has done a fine job of creating a more clarified storyline, and they've smoothly integrated all but one of the original songs into a plot that now only tangentially resembles the original. But structural ingenuity can't make up for bland characterization and an endless barrage of wisecracks that belies Hwang's stated desire to bring more depth and emotional integrity to the musical. (Only late in the second act are there hints of the darker mood Hwang may have at one point experimented with; perhaps he was ultimately unable to reconcile these impulses with the brassy pleasures of the score.)

The original's demure mail-order bride Mei-Li (Lea Salonga) is now a demure refugee from the Communists who killed her father, a history skillfully staged in the opening number, "A Hundred Million Miracles." She arrives in San Francisco and seeks out her father's best friend Wang (Randall Duk Kim), a specialist in traditional Chinese opera who is proudly still plying his trade to the Exit signs, much to the chagrin of his son Ta (Jose Llana), who runs a popular nightclub in the opera house one night a week. Mei-Li is recruited to join the opera ensemble, and is soon secretly swooning for Ta. She is encouraged in this pursuit by Linda Low (Sandra Allen), the ambitious, thoroughly Americanized star of the nightclub's floor show, on whom Ta has an unrequited crush.

This love triangle takes center stage for much of the evening, with Mei-Li and Ta performing some songs formerly given to characters now absent from the show. Their courtship begins when they duet on "You Are Beautiful," quite poetically reinvented as a way for Mei-Li to instruct Ta on the subtle beauties of Chinese opera. "Sunday" is Ta's comic description of the joys of American-style marriage; "Love, Look Away" signals Mei-Li's emotional crisis in the second act; and the evening concludes with Ta professing his love for Mei-Li through "Like a God."

But it's only when they're performing these still vital-sounding songs that either of the characters exhibits fresh theatrical life (both Salonga and Llana are excellent singers). Otherwise, Mei-Li tends to speak in the kind of simple sentences that wide-eyed innocents are prone to, dispensing fortune-cookie advice to smooth the conflicts between son and father ("The only thing he wants is your respect," etc.) The character makes for a sweet but bland center of the show, particularly as embodied by an actress who displays ample reserves of both those qualities.

The secondary plot finds the grumpy traditionalist Wang succumbing rather suddenly to the pleasures of serving up shtick slathered with soy sauce for the consumption of white audiences. He's prodded along by an affably rapacious agent, Madame Liang (a likably tart Jodi Long), who christens the opera house the Club Chop Suey. This narrative arc, complete with late-life romance, is scarcely less formulaic than the central one.

Wang's conversion provides Hwang's solution to some of Hammerstein's un-p.c. lyrics: He elects to let the Asian characters in on the joke, so that "Chop Suey" becomes Wang's big nightclub number, complete with dancing girls in takeout boxes (the evening's long parade of costumes, by Gregg Barnes, are clever and eye-catching). As Madade Liang neatly puts it: "We will give the tourists what they want, but we will have the last laugh." But the question arises -- how funny is the joke? Certainly the quips ladled out by flaming queen costumer Harvard aren't, particularly, and the insertion of this flimsy stereotype into the proceedings is puzzling, since Hwang has pointed to the original's typed portrayals of its Asian characters as the major reason a rewrite was required.

Musically, the production is far more pleasing. Indeed its chief allure -- by no means a small one -- is the chance to hear this mostly forgotten score performed by first-class musicians and singers. As noted, both Salonga and Llana are excellent vocalists, as is Allen, who cuts a stylish figure in her flashy, fleshy production numbers, "I Enjoy Being a Girl" and "Fan Tan Fannie." The new orchestrations by Don Sebesky make up for reduced orchestral resources by putting more emphasis on Asian flavorings in several songs. The band sits on the top level of the pagoda that is the central element in Robin Wagner's somewhat spare set designs.

But when the music stops, we return to Hwang's struggle to create a fresh context for songs written almost half a century ago, when depictions of minority cultures weren't so rigorously examined -- and the conventions of musical theater were more viable, too. That he doesn't succeed is not necessarily a reflection on his talents. As Ta says to Mei-Li, refering to the tales of the Chinese opera, "Must've been tough to breathe life into those corny old stories." No kidding! As this production and the Roundabout's feeble reworking of "The Boys From Syracuse" prove, maybe the only thing tougher than writing the book for a new musical is rewriting the book for an old one.


Variety
10/17/2002

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