"Flower Drum Song" is generally regarded as one of musical-theater masters Rodgers and Hammerstein's lesser efforts. And the 1958 original is seen by many as hopelessly outdated, corny at best and perpetuating offensive stereotypes at worst. However, "Flower Drum Song," in its day, was also a landmark in representation, the first Broadway musical focused entirely on Asian Americans, featuring a cast of (mostly) Asian heritage.
Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang, who has said he considers the 1961 film version a "guilty pleasure," took up the task of completely rewriting the book of "Flower Drum Song" (based on the novel by C.Y. Lee) for a modern audience and from an Asian American perspective. Hwang's version keeps Rodgers and Hammerstein's music and the midcentury San Francisco Chinatown setting but changes around the song order and notably shifts the plot and tone. Hwang's 2002 update is the version currently presented by Palo Alto Players, directed by Lily Tung Crystal.
In this iteration of the show, set in the 1950s, virtuous young maiden Mei-Li (Emily Song) flees China for San Francisco after her beloved musician father is killed by Mao's regime. In Chinatown she connects with her father's best friend and former collaborator Wang (Bryan Pangilinan), who's struggling to keep his Chinese opera venue open. His U.S.-raised son Ta (Jomar Martinez) wants to turn the space into a modern nightclub, complete with scantily clad dancers led by showgirl Linda Low (Marah Sotelo). Traditionalist father and forward-thinking son are at odds, representing the generation gap between the old and new worlds. Mei-Li, who learned from her father the graceful Chinese dances Wang keeps alive and Ta loathes, quickly falls for the charismatic Ta, but he's not inclined to romance someone "fresh off the boat." He dreams of wooing Linda, while she dreams of heading to Hollywood.
Linda's new agent, Madame Liang (Melinda Meeng), a former actress turned cynical promoter, convinces the reluctant Wang to turn his beloved Golden Pearl into Club Chop Suey, a cheesy -- but wildly popular -- full-time nightclub where Chinese stereotypes are gleefully exploited to turn a profit. Think girls dressed in giant takeout boxes, men dressed as chopsticks and Wang dressed in sequined red-white-and-blue and spouting "ancient Chinese wisdom" as "Uncle Sammy Fong."
Eventually, Ta becomes ashamed of what the club has become and starts to appreciate the classical opera and dance he'd previously shunned, as well as his Chinese roots. Though he's consistently treated Mei-Li rather shabbily, he still hopes to win her heart and form an artistic and romantic partnership, creating a new act combining the best of both worlds. "To create something new," as Mei-Li states, sounding rather like the fortune cookies she works with in a short-lived factory job, "we must first love what is old."
In Hwang's hands, the focus becomes, as in some of his other shows, on the Asian American experience in regards to show business, with the characters expressing frustrations about being pigeonholed and stereotyped and using their performances to poke fun at, work through and reflect their experiences.
Though "Flower Drum Song" may not stack up musically or lyrically with Rodgers and Hammerstein's best, it's still a sweet and pleasant score, mixing jazzy show tunes with Eastern influences. The insipidly sexist yet vexingly catchy "I Enjoy Being a Girl," sung by Linda, is probably the best-known tune and works best these days if delivered ironically or as high kitsch. "Grant Avenue" is an upbeat homage to Chinatown which in this version Madame Liang winkingly delivers as a hypothetical sales pitch to tourists. And making "You Are Beautiful" a duet during which Mei-Li and Ta both rehearse Chinese opera and flirt, works very well indeed.
Song, a Homestead High School senior, makes for a lovely Mei-Li, with a beautiful voice. Sotelo and Meeng, the two other female leads, are strong singers and dynamic performers as well. Pangilinan is very loveable in his transition from stern, conservative Wang to ultimate showman Uncle Sammy and hammy Joey Alvarado seemed to be a crowd favorite as Chin, who plays the buffoon but chimes in with wisdom when necessary.
The ensemble works hard to embody Alex Hsu's choreography and mostly succeeds, including a very entertaining, rhythmic fan dance and in somber scenes of Chinese immigrants hopefully making their way to San Francisco, then struggling to survive.
Costume designer Y. Sharon Peng, lighting designer Pamila Gray and scenic designer Ting-Na Wang turn the Lucie Stern Theater into a riot of colors and textures.
Thanks to its setting, "Flower Drum Song" is of special interest locally.
From the enthusiastic applause opening night, Palo Alto Players would seem to have chosen well a musical that, despite its flaws, hits the spot for local audiences thanks to its blend of old world and new, vintage and modern, and the still crucial element of representation.
What: "Flower Drum Song."
Where: Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.
When: Through May 12; Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m.
Info: PA Players.