Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Flower Drum Song arrived on Broadway in 1958 as a (then) contemporary story about the culture clash between generations of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco's Chinatown. Wang, the father, remains committed to traditional Chinese ways, while his adult son Ta is eager to experience the life of his adopted homeland. Ta is especially conflicted about women, pursuing flashy nightclub performer Linda Low, but also drawn to the traditional Mei-Li, newly arrived from China. Mei-Li was a mail order bride, a dated and offensive notion that made a major revival of Flower Drum Song a non-starter. In 2002, playwright David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly) wrote a new book, retaining most of Rodgers and Hammerstein's score but with significant plot and character changes. Still, the original theme of assimilation as experienced by different generations remains at the core.
The new book is set in the late 1950s, but now Mei-Li is a refugee from the turmoil of China under its new Communist regime after her father is killed in the civil wars. Alone in San Francisco, she seeks out Wang, who in China had been her father's dear friend and colleague in the Chinese opera. Wang runs a Chinese opera house that plays to empty seats, except one night a week when he allows Ta to present what he calls "Night Club Night." Those raucous and titillating performances are the main source of income for Wang's opera house, yet he is scornful of them. Mei-Li, trained in traditional opera by her father, joins Wang's company, with Ta coaching her in her roles. She quickly falls in love with Ta, while he doggedly pursues the star of his show, Linda Low, whose ambition is to leave Chinatown and become a Hollywood star. We also meet Chao, who is a peasant who traveled from China to the U.S. with Mei-Li, and he is in love with her, a love she cannot return.
Despite his disdain for the nightclub, Wang fills in for a comedy sketch actor, receives laughs and applause from the audience, and suddenly fully embraces the club. Madame Liang, a pushy talent agent, takes over managing the nightclub, leading to a secondary romance with Wang, an older, wiser couple. The plot's romantic twists, turns and heartbreak for Mei Li, Ta, Linda and Chao co-exist with the dual process of becoming "American". Wang is finally able to appreciate what his new land can offer, while Ta learns the value of maintaining ties to his cultural roots.
Of course, there is the Rodgers and Hammerstein scorenot the masters' best work, but still full of strong melody and artful lyrics. The show's most popular song was "I Enjoy Being a Girl," Linda Low's homage to her free-wheeling life. In its day, it no doubt signaled a type of liberated woman, but today can be seen as reinforcing stereotypes of women trading on femininity and sex. Fortunately, Meghan Kreidler, as Linda, delivers the number with enough verve and strength of character to keep the "ick" factor at bay. There are many other winning songs, placed by Hwang to fit in with his new book. Those changes are sometimes for the better, other times for the worse. "A Hundred Million Miracles" is a gorgeous song, written to define Mei-Li's character as she charms her Chinese-American hosts with pure belief and optimism. Now it is performed in fragments during an opening montage that depicts the turmoil in China, the murder of Mei-Li's father, and her frightening ocean journey to America. It doesn't make sense, and muddles the show's start. On the other hand, "Don't Marry Me" was originally intended for Sammy Fong, owner of the nightclub, to convince innocent Mei-Li (who was to be his mail order bride) that he is not for her. Now it is sung by the mature Wang and Madame Liang as they try to deny their growing attraction for each other. The change works beautifully.
Stephanie Bertumen as Mei-Li, Wesley Mouri as Ta, and Meghan Kreidler as Linda all convey fully dimensioned individuals, not merely types. Mouri skillfully portrays Ta's inner conflicts, and makes his stubborn pursuit of Linda the believable act of a man who has not thought through what he wants or needs in life. Mouri's soaring voice is put to great use in the dreamy "You Are Beautiful" and the exhilarating "Like a God." Kreidler has a presence that is strong, confident, sexy and smart, and fits in well with the nightclub production numbers. Bertumen conveys Mei-Li's simplicity, her pride in her heritage, her integrity, and a tenderness in her love that win us over from the start. Her vocals are less compelling, in part due to her pleasant but thin voice, and in part due to staging choices. What should be a knockout number, "A Hundred Million Miracles," fails to catch. She is given the show's most openly emotional song, "Love, Look Away," but it is played at such a fast clip that the depth of heartbreak the song is meant to convey is lost.
Sherwin Resurreccion does not convince as the elder Wang. Using stiff, choppy vocal patterns and movement to convey age, the effect is rather to drain feeling from his character. Eric "Pogi" Sumangil plays comic character Chin. Sumangil, terrific in so many other shows, here falls flat, little helped by jokes that don't land. Katie Bradley, funny and brash as Madam Liang, makes her manipulative prowess believable. However, Jake Sung-Guk Sullivan is far too awkward and self-effacing as Chao. There is never any chance of him staking a claim to Mei-Li's heart. Daniel Sakamoto-Wengel plays the comic relief part of Linda's backstage dresser well enough, but it is pretty much a throw-away role.
Director Randy Reyes pumps the show with movement and draws clarity to each scene. He makes especially good use of the ensemble to create affecting tableaus, and establish atmosphere. Music director Andrew Fleser leads an orchestra of four musicians who beautifully produce the spectrum of sounds in this score, from Chinese-soaked melodies to brassy nightclub numbers. Penelope Freeh's choreography creates appropriately tawdry and energetic club numbers, in particular "Grant Avenue."
The simple set is composed of a pair of half arches that can be joined to form a whole or moved, creating front and back stage at the opera house, as well as a fortune cookie factory, which makes for smooth transitions between scenes, though lessens the visual appeal of the show. The costumes, however, are more lavish, including beautifully rendered traditional Chinese garb and madly creative nightclub act costumes, as well as bleak work clothes where appropriate.
Flower Drum Song was never a great among musicals. Hwang's effort to write a book more relevant to today's attitudes and tastes seemed a great idea, but cannot lift the show from second rate status. Nor, for all the effort and talent on stage, does this Park Square / Mu Performing Arts co-production stand out as being among the notable productions of musical theater in the Twin Cities. It does showcase the challenges of assimilation that continue in immigrant communities to this very day, particularly relevant given our current national dialogue on immigration, and underscored by a series of final statements by members of the cast. It also offers a rare chance to hear a lesser-known but still lovely Rodgers and Hammerstein score. Along with its three lead performances, all winners, those may be reasons enough to take this trip to Chinatown.
Flower Drum Song continues on the Proscenium Stage at Park Square Theatre through February 19, 2017, 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul, MN, 55102. Tickets: $50.00 - 70.00; under 30 discounted seats, $21.00; seniors (62+) $5.00 discount; military $10.00 discount; rush tickets, $24.00, available for unsold seats one hour before performance (cash only). For tickets call 651-291-7005 or go to parksquaretheatre.org.
Music: Richard Rodgers; Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II; Book by David Henry Hwang, based on the original book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joseph Fields, and the novel by C.Y. Lee; Director: Randy Reyes; Musical Director: Andrew Fleser; Choreographer: Penelope Freeh; Scenic Design: Mina Kinukawa; Costume Design: Andrea M. Gross; Lighting Design: Michael P. Kittel; Sound Design: Jacob M. Davis; Properties Design: Abbee Warmboe; Stage Manager: Jamie J. Kranz; Assistant Stage Manager: Lyndsey Harter.
Cast: Stephanie Bertumen (Mei-Li), Katie Bradley (Madame Liang), Meghan Kreidler (Linda), Wesley Mouri (Ta), Sherwin Resurreccion (Wang), Daniel Sakamoto-Wengel (Harvard), Jake Sung-Guk Sullivan (Chao), Eric "Pogi" Sumangil (Chin). Ensemble: Brianna Belland, Kylee Brinkman, Michelle de Joya, Ashley Kershaw, Alice McGlave, Nikko Paul Raymo, Nicole Riebe, Jake Sung-Guk Sullivan, Joseph Vang, Meng Xiong.