Flower Drum Song
Forget everything you've heard about the Flower Drum Song "revisical." Forget whether "revisical" is a dirty word. Forget whether the Rodgers & Hammerstein organization is playing favorites by giving unprecedented free rein to David Henry Hwang while forbidding rewrites of other musicals. Forget the focus groups and the pleas for funding from the local Asian-American community. Forget all the debates over what this creative team is doing, and just take a look at what they've done.
Because what they've done is much more than simply save Flower Drum Song from a life of concert revivals, kept off the main stage by the stigma of political incorrectness. They've given this wonderful Rodgers and Hammerstein score a new lease on life, by partnering it with a book that is not merely inoffensive, but affirmatively thought-provoking, timely, touching, and funny as hell; and they've wrapped it all up in a production that simultaneously celebrates traditional Chinese methods of storytelling and the sexual freedom of America on the verge of the 1960s.
The story initially focuses on Mei-Li, who escapes to America when her father is captured by Communists. With nothing but a talent for Chinese Opera, an optimistic disposition, and the address of a friend of her father, Mei-Li sets off for San Francisco. There she finds Wang, who is playing Chinese Opera to empty audiences in Chinatown. Wang's attractive son, Ta, runs "nightclub night" at their theatre once a week, when trenchcoat-clad men come to watch star Linda Low and a chorus of showgirls strip down to skimpy bras and panties. Wang and Ta's clash over old ways versus new takes a turn when Madame Liang, promoter extraordinaire, enters the picture and convinces them to try a new concept in East Meets West entertainment. As their newly-dubbed "Club Chop Suey" becomes a raging success, their dispute is no longer whether the old ways should give way to modern entertainment, but the more difficult question of how far they should go. This show asks if it is acceptable to get a laugh by mocking one's culture, when there is a risk of reinforcing negative stereotypes.
With few exceptions, the Rodgers and Hammerstein score fits this book seamlessly. One of its great triumphs is, of all things, "I Enjoy Being a Girl." Sung by Linda Low to a newly-arrived Mei-Li, the song isn't simply a bouncy paean to femininity, but a joyous expression of the freedom of being a woman in a society where women are not repressed. The scene then segues into nightclub night, Linda Low's backup dancers appear, and the song is transformed into a coquettish strip number. Finally, when the girls have stripped as far as they will go, they seductively release their long black hair, and the tone of the song changes again, as we realize that these women - with their hopes, dreams and unmistakable talent - are performing for an audience who sees them only as nearly-naked exotic beauties. That all this comes so naturally out of "I Enjoy Being a Girl" is astonishing.
The stagecraft is as much a part of this show's success as its score and book. The choreography succeeds every time, with the delicate staging of traditional Chinese dance just as effective as the brash production numbers of the "Club Chop Suey." The extraordinary costumes similarly range from traditional Chinese to over-the-top American, and are capped by a stunning all-red finale. The first-rate cast is led by crystal-voiced Lea Salonga, who plays Mei-Li with the requisite combination of wide-eyed innocence and folk wisdom. Jose Llana, as Ta, gives a steady performance as the son trying to deny his Chinese roots, and he has a beautiful bold voice he lets soar at the end of the second act. Sandra Allen gives Linda Low a powerful sexual presence while simultaneously speaking and moving with a precision that tells men they are simply unworthy of her. Jodi Long's Madame Liang is a "broad" in the classic sense, and Tzi Ma is a perfect foil for her as her initially unwilling business partner, Wang.
So much is right about this show that it could be packed up and sent to Broadway tomorrow. Still, there are some problem areas. There are a few anachronisms; Linda Low dismisses foot binding with the modern complaint, "What was that all about?" and one of her costumes reveals thong underwear well before it came into vogue. The usually dead-on staging missteps when an entrance at the start of the finale is understandably mistaken by the audience for a curtain call. More troublesome is that "The Next Time It Happens," the act one ender borrowed from another Rodgers and Hammerstein show, Pipe Dream, does not gel with the character of Mei-Li. Similarly, the beautiful "Love Look Away" is not properly set up, and instead flounders out of place, uncomfortably wedged in at the end of a parade of Chinese immigrants returning home, failed by the American dream. And Hwang's script, for all its remarkable success, sometimes gets too preachy, speaking aloud lines that are better left in subtext. The audience can easily see the character flaw shared by Ta and Linda Low; to have them actually discuss it underestimates the audience's perceptiveness, while simultaneously making the characters entirely too self-aware.
Still, these flaws detract little from the major accomplishments of this show. It's light-hearted, fun, and moving; beautiful to hear and enchanting to see. All of a sudden, Flower Drum Song is fully alive again. If "a hundred million miracles are happening every day," this production is surely one of them.
Center Theatre Group/Music Center of Los Angeles County, Mark Taper Forum; Gordon Davidson, Artistic Director; Charles Dillingham, Managing Director; Robert Egan, Producing Director presents Flower Drum Song. Music by Richard Rodgers; Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II; Book by David Henry Hwang; Based on the original by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joseph Fields; Based on the novel by C.Y. Lee. Directed and Choreographed by Robert Longbottom; Supervising Music Director David Chase; Set Designed by Robin Wagner; Costumes Designed by Gregg Barnes; Lighting Designed by Brian Nason; Sound Designed by Jon Gottlieb and Philip G. Allen; Hair and Wigs Designed by Carol F. Doran; Casting by Amy Lieberman, CSA, and Tara Rubin, CSA; Orchestrations and Arrangements by David Chase; Music Director Charles duChateau; Associate Producer Madeline Puzo; Assistant Director Tom Kosis; Assistant Choreographer Darlene Wilson; Chinese Opera Consultant and Warrior Dance Staging Jamie H. J. Guan; Production Stage Manager Perry Cline; Stage Manager Mary Michele Miner; Assistant Stage Managers Susie Walsh, David Franklin.
Flower Drum Song plays at the Mark Taper Forum through December 2, 2001. For tickets, call 213-628-2772. For performance information, see the Taper's website at www.taperahmanson.com