Reviews for Flower Drum Song
Los Angeles Times
BYLINE: MICHAEL PHILLIPS, TIMES THEATER CRITIC
Totalitarian repression, cheesecake and Lea Salonga: These were the primary ingredients of the pop gruel known as "Miss Saigon." The ingredients have been recombined for a new dish. It's "Flower Drum Song," wholly revised and gleefully self-aware, at the Mark Taper Forum.
A few tons shy of a mega-musical--no fake helicopter here, no power ballads saccharine enough to stop communism dead in its tracks--it's a raffishly entertaining response to the 1958 original. Rodgers & Hammerstein purists may freak out (in their genteel way, of course) regarding what librettist David Henry Hwang has done to "their" show, based on the C.Y. Lee novel. Along with an entirely new story line, Hwang delivers some pretty wild mood swings. One minute, the Chinese refugee Mei-Li (Salonga) is talking about her father's death at the hands of Chairman Mao's thugs; the next, we're inside Club Chop Suey, on Grant Avenue, San Francisco, California, U.S.A., taking in a nightclub routine featuring Linda Low (Sandra Allen) and her Fresh Off the Boat Dancers--"stripping refugees," as one character calls them.
So it has its conflicted aspects. But in a lively, comically viable way. And by the end, Hwang and company manage a key thing: They make something of their primary love story.
In '58, "Flower Drum Song" told the tale of mail-order bride Mei-Li, who with her father arrived in Chinatown at the behest of her intended, hepcat Sammy Fong. Both Sammy and Wang Ta were stuck on the hyper-assimilated nightclub thrush, Linda. Wang Ta had another gal a-pining, Helen Chao, who sang "Love, Look Away."
The songs remain largely the same, albeit reordered and reassigned, but Hwang ditches the story line. In the new version, Mei-Li sings "A Hundred Million Miracles" in Tiananmen Square. Her father, a Chinese Opera master performer, tears down a Mao banner in protest and is promptly beaten. Mei-Li sets sail for San Francisco, where she meets her father's old opera cohort, Wang (Tzi Ma).
Wang keeps the old opera traditions alive in his tattered but proud theater, the Golden Pearl. Fridays, however, he reluctantly turns the club over to his son, Ta (Jose Llana), whose star performer is Linda. Mei-Li, falls hard for Ta, who dreams Broadway-style dreams. Wang rejects his off-night success at first. Then, with the guidance of theatrical agent Madame Liang (Jodi Long), Club Chop Suey takes off; Wang gets the bug and transforms into Sammy Fong, the "ancient Oriental wise guy" headliner.
It's too much for Ta. "We're turning into some kind of weird Oriental minstrel show!" he bemoans. The rejected Mei-Li, meantime, has gone to work in a fortune cookie factory. She is engaged to the factory owner and plans to return with him to China. But what about Ta? Will love find a way? Can Ta conquer his own self-loathing and cultural prejudices long enough to appreciate anyone who sings like Lea Salonga?
Two songs from the original Broadway edition have been cut: "Sunday" and "The Other Generation." For director-choreographer Robert Longbottom's Taper premiere, a song lost in tryouts ("My Best Love") has been resurrected and assigned to Uncle Chin (wonderful Alvin Ing). And now, Mei-Li ends Act 1 with the (jarringly) peppy "The Next Time It Happens," a refugee from Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Pipe Dream."
The Taper production is big for the Taper, though smallish for a Broadway-minded revival. Working with scenic designer Robin Wagner's simple, pagoda-dominated unit set, Longbottom keeps the action zipping. The standout ensemble number is "Fan Tan Fannie," stylized just so, costumed with trashy panache by Gregg Barnes. And reassigned to Madame Liang, wittily embodied by Long--she is, in the old parlance, a great broad, if no great shakes vocally--"Grant Avenue" is a pleasure. As Linda, whose most famous tune is "I Enjoy Being a Girl," Allen lacks wit, but lacks nothing else required by the role.
Hwang was inspired to take on "Flower Drum Song" after seeing the Christopher Renshaw revival of "The King and I." Like that production, this one has been mounted with an eye and an ear toward cultural authenticity. Jamie J.J. Guan is listed as the Chinese Opera consultant and "Warrior Dance" director. Musical director David Chase, arranging as well as he can for a six-piece band, makes use of an ehru, or Chinese violin. He also throws in some Esquivel effects for the cheeseball nightclub bits.
Hwang can't resolve everything he's after. At one point, Ta realizes what he's missing: a sense of cultural history in his floor show. "So long as these tourists are coming to Chinatown," he reasons, "they oughta see at least one number that's actually Chinese." Hwang may as well be talking about his own rewrite. He and Longbottom can't get enough of the kitsch potential--the gay wardrobe volunteer, Harvard (Allen Liu), refers to it directly. Yet Hwang wants to address "real" stuff, too--the questions of what Asian Americans then (and now) deal with, in and out of the entertainment realm.
Certain things are missing. We never see Mei-Li assisting Ta in his nightclub rehearsals; we have to take their mutual attraction on faith. A lot of Hwang's wisecracks are simply coarser versions of those peddled by the '58 edition. And why keep even a deliberately discordant version of "Chop Suey," one of the few truly lousy R&H numbers in existence?
Such questions tend to dissolve whenever Salonga is singing (though she's raggedy in the upper register), or when Long is strutting around in heels, giving Eve Arden a run for her money. You may or may not buy what Taper artistic director Gordon Davidson writes in the program notes, regarding "Flower Drum Song" and the Taper's commitment to "culturally and socially aware theatre." "Shake that pan-Asian booty! " Cultural awareness" comes in many forms, I suppose.
As does success in musical theater. For all its nutty contradictions, and ultimately because of them, "Flower Drum Song" succeeds.
"Flower Drum Song," Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown L.A. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Also: Nov. 19, 8 p.m., and Nov. 28, 2:30 p.m. No performances Nov. 22 or 7:30 p.m. Dec. 2. Ends Dec. 2. $45-$50. (213) 628-2772. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.
Mei-Li ..... Lea Salonga
Many older musicals go in for a refreshing facelift, but this version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Flower Drum Song," with a spankin' new book by David Henry Hwang, is a lot closer to wholesale reconstructive surgery. Some of it comes off a bit plastic and creates some new wrinkles while eliminating old ones, but this bold theatrical operation, five years in the making, must be deemed an artistic success, revealing a revitalized score and a dramatic complexion that's far richer than the original. This patient brings new meaning to the term revival, and it's too compelling an effort to imagine that it wouldn't make its way to Broadway.
Those who recall the 1958 original, or more likely the 1961 film version, will remember that the show began with arranged bride Mei-Li arriving in America. But this is not your father's "Flower Drum Song," and instead we begin in China, where Mei-Li (Lea Salonga) watches her father tear down a banner of Mao and get dragged away by the Communists. His last words to her, and his gift of the title drum, send her on a journey to America, where she seeks out her father's old friend from opera school, Master Wang (Tzi Ma) and develops a crush on his son Wang Ta (Jose Llana), singing "I Am Going to Like It Here."
Ditching the arranged marriage is a small but significant alteration. Ta is still torn between the very Chinese Mei-Li and the very Americanized Linda Low (Sandra Allen), but instead of the generational conflict between father and son manifesting itself in whom Ta should marry, it emerges in a battle of theatrical form. Wang continues to perform Chinese opera to empty houses in his "Golden Pearl Theater," while Ta turns the space into a nightclub one night a week, with Linda starring in flashy numbers boasting plenty of flesh.
Soon, the nightclub has taken over, with the assistance of Madame Liang (a terrific Jodi Long), a character who replaces the kindly assimilationist aunt from the original with a crassly assimilationist agent-entrepreneur. Leading the company in an energized "Grant Avenue," she renames the place "Club Chop Suey" and turns it into a tacky but profitable tourist trap.
This is where Hwang's conception of how to keep the Rodgers and Hammerstein songs and yet find a new, more believable context for them takes full shape. Rather than Chinese-Americans singing "Chop Suey" because they aspire to assimilate, the song becomes Chinese-Americans feeding a white audience exactly what they want, a kitschy version of Chinese life that's so adulterated it is referred to convincingly as a minstrel show.
Hwang manages to have it both ways, commenting on the entertainment while still delivering it. And it works. The numbers tell the story and engage at the same time, helped by some outrageously over-the-top costuming from Gregg Barnes and a clever, quite simple set design from Robin Wagner. Director-choreographer Robert Longbottom makes extremely amusing use of Asian fans for the rollicking version of "Fan Tan Fannie," the visual highlight of the night. Anyone who thinks Hwang is looking to smooth out the edges of the original will find that he has sharpened them instead. But there remains a gentleness, a sense of compassion and understanding for the characters' plight, that keeps this reworking from growing too cynical.
The narrative flow can be a bit choppy and uneven, but the material is so rich that it really is amazing that Hwang and his collaborators have achieved even this degree of fluidity. Still, some structural rethinking is necessary: Act I is twice the length of Act II, and the showier numbers get exhausted too early.
In Mei-Li, Hwang has not exactly created a believable figure. This is too angelic, too wise a character to be more than a theatrical device, especially in the scenes where she seeks to help father and son understand each other. And the dilemma Hwang has created for her in Act II is a bit too cliched to be involving.
The entire evening is excellent musically, with the small six-member orchestra not limiting things at all. Salonga's voice is as pure as ever, and Llana demonstrates vocal abilities at the same level. Allen is the well-rounded standout, singing and dancing and managing to act what's probably the toughest part of all. Long and Tzi Ma make a terrific pair in their comic roles, with Alvin Ing (who was in the original touring company) and Allen Liu providing deft support in small, newly minted roles.
The Hollywood Reporter
Never underestimate the power of a good writer to bring a flawed musical back from the near-dead.
That's what David Henry Hwang has done for Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Flower Drum Song," a show that had been languishing in limbo for more than 40 years.
Then, five years ago, the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, which zealously guards the work of the two titans, gave Hwang the go-ahead to revise the book. The result, while not perfect, is an exhilarating accomplishment. "Flower Drum" has entered the modern era with a bang _ and a new beat. The show has always had that wonderfully melodic and varied Rodgers and Hammerstein score going for it. From the delicate or dark lyricism of "A Hundred Million Miracles," "You Are Beautiful" and "Love Look Away" to the upbeat, jazzy stylings of "Grant Avenue," "Chop Suey" and "Fan Tan Fannie" to the catchy curves and swerves of "I Enjoy Being a Girl," this is a score of classic dimensions. All "Flower Drum" needed was a book that was not quite so sweet, simplistic, silly and stereotypical in its view of Chinese and Chinese-American culture.
In the radical surgery performed on the piece, Hwang has managed to solve most of these problems while remaining true to the original show's spirit and central theme. The tone is fresh and sassy, the writing crisp and the sensibility balanced and admirably nuanced.
As the story goes now, Mei-Li (Lea Salonga of "Miss Saigon" fame) arrives in San Francisco without her father, both victims of the oppressive Communist regime. Trained by her father as a classical singer, Mei-Li soon lands a job with an impoverished Chinese opera company playing to nearly empty houses. She quickly falls for Ta (Jose Llana), the thoroughly Americanized son of the company's hidebound traditional leader, Wang (Tzi Ma). Ta, it turns out, has joined the "chop suey circuit" and is about to put on gaudy floor shows for the tourist trade.
This new framing device is one of Hwang's best ideas. It allows him to dramatize the central conflict of tradition versus assimilation in a largely music-and-dance idiom rather than relying on the rocky love story (a love triangle in the original) between Mei-Li and Ta. This leads to some brilliantly garish nightclub numbers that are contrasted effectively with the delicately exotic Chinese opera pieces. Culture clash rarely has looked so clear or been presented so entertainingly.
Kudos to director-choreographer Robert Longbottom and costume designer Gregg Barnes in particular for clever, witty fantasy staging.
But there is a price to be paid for telling the story in this new way. The love story between Mei-Li and Ta sometimes gets lost in the reshuffle, and it's not always convincing in the way it develops. Mei-Li, while not the ultratraditional, sweetly naive character of the original, also lacks some of her charm; she seems at times a bit too wise for her own good. Salonga sings like an angel, but the character doesn't allow much range in her acting.
Linda Low (Sandra Allen), the star of the nightclub and a scheming gold digger in the original, has less to do in the new version. She's no longer Mei-Li's rival for the affections of Ta, which frees her to concentrate on those terrific floor show numbers. Madame Liang, played winningly by Jodi Long, has been transformed into a theatrical agent by Hwang, making for a charming romantic subplot between her and Wang.
The intimate Taper size and its thrust stage suit the show perfectly. All things considered, it's a pleasure to have "Flower Drum" back, especially with so many tasty new treats up its silken sleeve.
The Daily News of Los Angeles
A Chinese opera house owner in San Francisco, a traditionalist down to his white blood cells, has just drawn the biggest laughs of his professional career through salty burlesque during the "nightclub night" he has spent months disdaining. Sharing an embrace with his considerably more with-it son, Wang Chi-Yang says, "If only our ancestors could see us now."
The same thought crossed my mind after seeing Linda Low and her fellow nightclub dancers stripping down to bras and undies during the rendition of "I Enjoy Being a Girl" - still "Flower Drum Song's" most recognizable tune. What would the ancestors of musical theater - in this case the late Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein and co-author Joe Fields - think at seeing their 1958 musical thus retooled? Jaw-dropping disgust or cash-register dollar signs? Here's betting they'd give it the thumbs-up. The much ballyhooed re- creation of "Flower Drum Song," which opened Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum, is marvelously effective not merely because of the talent on stage and off. Playwright David Henry Hwang has delivered a reinterpreted classic with something on its mind beyond frisky tunes and a predictable love story. Credit the ancestors, certainly: Rodgers, Hammerstein, Fields and author C.Y. Lee, who wrote the novel on which the musical is based. But give a bigger share to Hwang, who hasn't simply reimagined "Flower Drum Song" but taken a Volvo and turned it into an equally reliable hot rod.
Time and again, this new "Flower Drum" raises question of ancestry that Hwang has explored in earlier plays. Do we betray our roots when we assimilate into another culture? If so, how much and are there alternatives? Can traditions from the past inform the present to help artists tell new stories? Wang (played by Tzi Ma) makes his peace with the break from tradition awfully quickly; apparently the money's too good for him not to.
More conflicted is Wang's thoroughly Americanized son, Ta (Jose Llana) who, for all his shedding of the old ways, doesn't want the club to turn into "some Oriental minstrel show." Even as Ta is developing steps for new nightclub night dances, we watch the movements being simultaneously re-created by dancers in warrior garb (artfully choreographed by the production's Chinese opera consultant Jamie H.J. Guan). Clearly the past has a place in Ta's future. He just needs to find a balance.
Ditto Wu Mei-Li (Lea Salonga), the fresh-off-the-boat Hong Kong immigrant who escapes to America with little more than the clothes on her back and a precious flower drum after her father is put to death in Maoist China.
Most closely resembling her counterpart from the original, Mei-Li in Hwang's version has finally escaped the confines of the character's pidgin-English-spouting shrinking violethood. As embodied by Salonga - whose voice has only gotten richer since her days in "Miss Saigon" - the character now has a backbone. Her eyes flash with determination when she's singing about "A Hundred Million Miracles." During her first encounter with Wang and Ta at the Golden Pearl Opera House in San Francisco's Chinatown, Mei-Li picks up a bamboo pole and holds her own executing the battle scene of the Flower Boat Maiden. Still a bit naive, Mei-Li has a few lessons for Ta and vice versa.
Linda Low (Sandra Allen), the hottest dish on the nightclub circuit, also has assimilation issues, even if Hwang's plotting doesn't always seem to know where she fits in. Mentor, vamp and social climber, Linda primarily exists to perform - to turn an audience into wolves - and in this endeavor, the sultry Allen excels. The numbers "Fan Tan Fannie" and "I Enjoy Being a Girl" sizzle even as they spoof. The "backstage musical" context also allows Hwang to get comic relief from Mme Liang (Jodi Long), an Ethel Merman-esque agent, and from Harvard (Allen Liu), Linda's effete dresser.
Under the sure hand of director/choreographer Robert Longbottom, the production's musical numbers fit the Taper's intimate confines more than adequately. Visually, Longbottom owes a substantial debt to his creative team, particularly costume designer Gregg Barnes, who has re-created the look of 1950s Chinatown as well as the traditional garb of a much earlier era. Robin Wagner's nightclub facade set is occasionally draped over or hidden for scenes in other locales. Some 2 1/2 hours after Me-Li first taps out that nine-beat rat-a-tat on her drum, "Flower Drum Song" ends with a wedding and an image. The drum finds a new owner. It's a gorgeous scene, true to everything that has preceded it, one more little miracle in a production positively full of them.
"FLOWER DRUM SONG"
Ventura County Star
What a difference a play makes. In 1958, Rodgers and Hammerstein debuted "Flower Drum Song" on Broadway. The mish-mash of Asian assimilation and U.S. pizazz struck a light-hearted chord with audiences. Less than 10 years ago, teen-ager Lea Salonga was introduced to American audiences as the star of "Miss Saigon," a blast of a musical set during the waning days of the Vietnam War. Salonga belted out songs that almost despite their heft revealed an exceptional voice.
Now a "Flower Drum Song" with book totally rewritten by the distinguished David Henry Hwang has opened at the Mark Taper Forum with the politically incorrect edges sanded down but the whimsy and humor intact. In the stage-wise production at the compact Taper, Salonga sings sweetly and purely in a setting that shows off her vocal talents in the best possible context. The new "Flower" was originally scheduled to be planted at the Los Angeles Music Center's Ahmanson Theatre, a much larger space, then moved to Broadway. Financial concerns -- and good theatrical sense -- account for the change to the Taper, which proves to be much more suitable for the gentle show and allows for the Taper's consistently fine stagecraft to inspire vivid costumes, simple but versatile sets, and brilliant lighting design.
Director/choreographer Robert Longbottom has come up with movement that enhances the suggestion of Chinese opera style on the one hand and in-your-face chorus-girl oomph on the other. Even the seven-piece orchestra perched behind the pagoda framework manages to blend contemporary and ancient musical instrumentation, including the erhu, a Chinese violin played evocatively by musical director/conductor Charles duChateau.
This time around, "Flower" depicts Mei-Li (Salonga) as a Chinese refugee whose father was torn away from his family after publicly defacing a poster of Mao. She arrives in San Francisco seeking out an old friend of her father's from Chinese opera days and finds him trying to make a go of a Chinatown theater featuring the ancestral art. The friend, Wang (Tzi Ma), is carrying on a running battle with his son, Ta (Jose Llana), who gets to stage a blatantly American nightclub show once a week. Ta's brassy shows bring in the crowds while Wang's stately presentations play to half a dozen on a good night.
The young and inexperienced Mei-Li falls for Ta, but he has eyes only for Linda Low (Sandra Allen), a thoroughly American dancer of Chinese descent. Entrepreneur Madame Liang (Jodi Long) is the catalyst who converts Wang to a showbiz performer and crowd-stealer, opening the way for Ta to get his ideas on stage. In fact, Wang so loves performing that he takes over the show, leaving Ta confused about what he really wants to produce, or even be. Is he Chinese or American? Is his sensibility indelibly touched by the old or will the he be permanently bowled over by the new?
Even with Hwang's major rewrite, which he terms a "revisitation," the plot is slight and given to gaps that audiences are left to fill in. The reincarnation slips from song to song in the fashion of the original era of the musical; two unnmemorable songs have been dropped and one, "The Next Time It Happens," imported from the composers' "Pipe Dream." Anyone familiar with the keepers of the Rodgers and Hammerstein legacy will be amazed that they have agreed to so much change, obviously an indication of their trust in Hwang and realization that the show needed serious updating.
The result of all the fiddling is a light show, but a charming one, with some outstanding performances by the pan-Asian cast. Visually, it dazzles, from the brilliant period costumes to the brassy bits of showgirl garb. Some may find the early emphasis on the girls shaking their booties surprising -- a segment of Saturday night's audience gave whoops of appreciation for every wiggle -- but there is a historic precedent for this type of show from 1920s Chinatowns in New York and San Francisco. Jodi Long, the musical's impressive and stage-wise Madame Liang, is the daughter of one of those early showgirls.
The musical opens with Mei-Li in China, just before her departure, wistfully singing the theme song, "A Hundred Million Miracles," as she anticipates possibilities in the New World. She is carrying with her a flower drum, which inspires her to hope for a better life. Other lyrical songs audiences may recall are "You Are Beautiful" and "Love Look Away." Setting the floorshows off with a jolt are moments like "Fan Tan Fannie" in the first act and "Chop Suey," the second-act opener.
Mixed in are effective scenes in which Mei-Li demonstrates her skills for Chinese opera and the chorus snaps to with displays of martial arts that underscore tradition and contrast with the anything-goes atmosphere of the Chinatown stage. Llana is a good match vocally and dramatically for Salonga (both are Filipino), Tzi Ma is a delight and Alvin Ing as Ching, the elder member of the ensemble, is touching in his solo bit, "My Best Love." Allen is an excellent dancer who convinces as a woman who has obliterated her family's ethnic past, though her performances is the least individualized of the major roles.
There may not be a hundred million miracles in the new "Flower Drum Song," but there are enough to make it a pleasure to see and hear.
E-mail Rita Moran at email@example.com.
|Copyright 2001, Roger W. Tang
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