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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

Flower Drum Song
at the 5th Avenue Theatre

The third time is clearly the charm for the revisal of Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II's Flower Drum Song, in Seattle on the second stop of a 4-city tour. Based on the opening night performance, any company in the country or indeed the civilized world should be clamoring to book this show. Although it has lost the "star" name of Lea Salonga in the pivotal role of Mei-Li, the show has more than benefited from a star-is-born turn by Yuka Takara, who understudied the role during last year's sadly brief Broadway run. Takara is only a few bars into the opening of "A Hundred Million Miracles" when you realize she is a remarkable talent. And happily, with director/choreographer Tom Kosis faithfully recreating Robert Longbottom's original smart, snazzy and smooth flowing staging, the whole show is a delight to the senses.

David Henry Hwang's much discussed, totally new (and Tony award nominated) book may not be perfect, but it hits far more often than it misses and avoids the quaint pitfalls of Hammerstein and Joseph Field's original adaptation of the C.Y. Lee novel.

Hwang's Mei-Li is an illegal Chinese immigrant (circa 1960) who escapes from communist China to seek the American dream in San Francisco's Chinatown. There she meets the man of her dreams, Ta, who is trying to jazz up his proud Chinese traditionalist father's Peking Opera theatre, the Golden Pearl. With traditional Peking Opera choreographic inspiration from Mei-Lei, Ta and an enterprising theatrical agent Madame Rita Liang turn his weekly nightclub night into a big bucks operation. Soon, Ta's father Wang has agreed to rename his theatre Club Chop Suey and changes his own name to Sammy Fong, becoming a smash lowbrow nightclub comic. Mei-Li is clearly the girl for Ta long before he realizes it, and he wastes his time on the very American nightclub chanteuse Linda Low. Complications and misunderstandings plague the pair coming together, while Master Wang falls into an "opposites attract" romance with Rita Liang. Being that this all has to be tied into one of the sunniest and least dramatic scores R&H ever wrote together, rest assured that, despite some welcome darker edges and implications, there is still a very happy and visually opulent ending.

Top-billed in the role of Ta is silken-voiced Jose Llana, whose portrayal has grown in stature and maturity through his long tenure with the Los Angeles and Broadway companies of the show. His lyrical solo to the wistful "Sunday," the driving "Like a God," and his duet with Takara on the show's most enduring ballad, "You Are Beautiful," are vocal high points in a show that is full of them. But Takara, though billed in alphabetical order with the rest of the show's leads, is the indisputable heart of the production. She is equally at home on her vocals for the tender and dreamy "I Am Going to Like it Here" as she is on the melancholy ballad "Love, Look Away". It is also notable that the romantic sparks fly more believably with Takara and Llana than they did when Salonga was his Mei-Li.

Though the role of Linda Low has far fewer musical opportunities in the revisal, Emily Hsu is sensational as the chorus girl who ultimately leaves Chinatown for a shot at Hollywood. Hsu dances like a dream and packs a real vocal wallop on "I Enjoy Being a Girl" (which, PC or not, was this show's hit song) and "Fan-Tan Fannie," backed by the marvelous ensemble.

Standout support comes from Christine Toy Johnson [see David's interview with Christine] as Madame Rita Liang, another case where the performer surpasses her Broadway counterpart. Toy Johnson gets the acerbic humor of her character and sells a knockout vocal on "Grant Avenue", but also infuses Madame Liang with a warm undercurrent that makes you root for her character in her romance with James Saito's Wang. Saito nails his characterization, duets amusingly with Toy Johnson on "Don't Marry Me," and has fun with his choreography when the character morphs into Sammy Fong, though his voice is the thinnest of the principal actors.

Two outstanding vets of the L.A. and Broadway runs also bolster the tour. Alvin Ing, so endearingly amusing as Uncle Chin, also makes the once cut song "My Best Love" a welcome, generously sentimental addition to the show, and Allen Liu never overdoes the camp as fey costumer Harvard, keeping his character a realistic, proudly effeminate gay man, not a stereotype. Bobby Pestka keeps from brooding too much and earns some real sympathy as Chao, Mei-Li's fellow refugee and would be suitor.

David Chase's new musical adaptation and Don Sebesky's orchestrations do justice to this unfairly neglected Rodgers and Hammerstein score by freshening them, but not distorting their appeal. The scenic design, based on Robert Wagner's original, is handsome and versatile; Natasha Katz's lighting is effective; and Gregg Barnes' costumes are lovely, humorous, and striking, sometimes all at once.

One can always revisit the kitschy but fun Ross Hunter film version of Flower Drum Song for a facsimile of how this show began its theatrical life, laden with great performances by Miyoshi Umeki, Jack Soo, Nancy Kwan, Juanita Hall and others. But it seems a safe bet that future stage revivals will follow Hwang's new blueprint, and Seattle audiences should definitely follow the sound of the flower drum to the 5th Avenue Theatre.

Flower Drum Song runs through October 26 at the 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 5th Avenue in downtown Seattle. For tickets ($18-67) call (206) 292-ARTS or visit Ticketmaster online at www.ticketmaster.com, or in person at any Ticketmaster location or the 5th Avenue Theatre box office.




- David-Edward Hughes



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