Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Also see Eddie's review of Pear Slices
While the Broadway premiere in 1958 was successful and led to a 1961 musical, movie, Flower Drum Song lay mostly dormant in the following decades due to difficulty in finding Asian casts and with song lyrics that were sometimes found to be offensive. In 2002, David Henry Hwang rewrote the book, retaining most of the original songs and lyrics, and opened a short-lived show on Broadway. However, that version has since become a popular offering on many regional stages, with Palo Alto Players being the latest to stage a Flower Drum Song that for many reasonsespecially in the casting of local high school senior Emily Song as Mei-Liis a must-see, shimmering production. It is in many ways a love story to the Bay Area's much beloved Chinatown.
When Mei-Li arrives at the port of San Francisco, she makes her way to the only address and name her father gave her, the Golden Pearl Theatre. There, her father's old friend Wang (Bryan Pangilinan) runs a Chinese opera company that his son Ta (Jomar Martinez) tells Mei-Li has its biggest crowds on Saturday: "Last week, six people." Such news does not discourage Mei-Li, who is trained in the art of Chinese opera movements. Emily Song continues to wow the audience with her bright, crystal-clear vocals and radiant smile as she sings, "I Am Going to Like It Here." Not only does the just-arrived émigré like the Golden Pearl's "encouraging atmosphere like a smile on a friendly face," she admits to herself, "There's especially one I like ... I would follow him anywhere." For young Mei-Li, the Americanized Ta has unknowingly won her heart.
But Ta has already lost his heart to Linda Low (Marah Sotelo), a Chinese-American stripper who stars on Monday nights in the Golden Pearl as it turns into a nightclubnights that at least draw several dozen patrons compared to all the other nights his father's opera draws few to none. Mei-Li gets an eye-popping taste of America as Linda in a big, bold, and brassy voice sings, "I Enjoy Being a Girl," backed by six dancers in red, bikini-size shimmering outfits that put on a razzle-dazzle show (just one example of the evening's many of the choreographic genius and creativity of Alex Hsu). Unfortunately for Ta, Linda shows no love interest in himsomething he somehow fails to see as he continues to fawn over her.
But during a delicately flowing opera practice dance with Mei-Li, Ta does let himself lock his eyes dreamily to hers and he gives her an unexpected kiss. The lyrical beauty of Song's lightly sung notes joins Martinez' youthful, appealing voice in singing, "You Are Beautiful," ending with a plot-predictive, "You are the girl I will love someday."
The nightclub that Ta desires is not at all what his more traditional father wants, leading to much tension between the two. It is not until an assertive and attractive Madame Liang (Melinda Meeng) catches Wang's attention that he begins to consider otherwise. With a big, booming voice to match her grand vision for the Golden Pearl and her sky-high confidence that she will succeed, Meeng's 5th-Avenue-dressed Madame Liang wows Wang in describing a "Grant Avenue" where, after a ride on a trolley, "Dong, dong, you're in Hong Kong having yourself a time." In another fabulously choreographed number where many of the twenty-person cast fill the stage, the Madame convinces a still-reluctant Wang to transform his dying opera house into a club and restaurant called Club Chop Suey.
Opening night allows Linda and her back-up troupe of six to fill the club three timesan evening highlighted by Linda and the dancers loudly snapping to attention time and again their red Chinese fans in "Fan Tan Fannie," a dance number where voices, legs, and those red fans eye-poppingly combine for yet another big number on the Palo Alto Players stage. But the real surprise is when heretofore skeptic Wang decides in the third show to push aside a poorly acting, gay performer named Harvard (a hilariously bumbling but fabulous in airs Bryan Munar) to take his place in "Gliding Through My Memoree." Wang finds a new role in his renamed club as a star, having renamed himself Sammy Fong. When he sings about a vagabond sailor remembering "all the girls who adored me" from around the globe, designer Y. Sharon Peng's evening of colorful costume wonders comes to an electric climax as dancing girls arrive Vegas-style in native attire from the world's exotic ports of call.
The success of the new club, the new star status of Wang and his growing attraction to Madame Liang will lead the two of them to their own night on the town and one of the night's funniest, most charming numbers, "Don't Marry Me"a duet where the two take Hammerstein's cute and funny lyrics and add their own sizzle and snap to ensure a number that delights. But just as their relationship is showing surprise signs of blossoming, the rest of the show has to go through some predictable but fun to watch ups and downs.
Ta loves Linda, who does not love him; Linda tries to Americanize Mei-Li to attract Ta but with disastrous effects; and Mei-Li is drawn into a proposal to go back to Hong Kong with a friend who has loved her since their boat trip across the Pacific, Chao (a persistent and stubborn John Paul Kilecdi-Li). Along the way, Ta's lovable Uncle Chin (Joey Alvarado), a janitor in the new club, is able to offer Ta some good advice as he sings, "My Best Love," telling a down-and-out Ta, "A man cannot love others until he learns to love himself."
Lily Tung Crystal directs the large cast with an ease and flow that allows the two hours and thirty minutes (with intermission) to literally fly by too quickly. Each number is conceived with increasing cleverness, and each scene finds ways for the audience to get to know further and to care about the key characters of this engaging story. Memories of 1960s Chinatown are kindled by the cut-out outlines of Grant Avenue that appear as part of Ting-Na Wang's scenic design, while Pamila Gray's lighting provides enthralling background meshes of projected colors, spotlighted moments of intimate couplings, and full-on splashes of nightclub pizzazz. Brandie Larkin's sound design ensures not a word of dialogue or song is lost, even with music director Amanda Ku's direction of a ten-person orchestra that gives big-stage sound to Rodgers music (additional orchestrations and arrangements by Terry Halvorson, from the work of Don Sebesky).
Palo Alto Players offers a gift to Bay Area audiences in producing the rarely performed Flower Drum Song, but the present is all the more welcome because of a production that is conceived and performed with the look, sound, style, and acting one might expect of a company and stage much larger. This is the kind of musical theatre evening that leaves those exiting humming, smiling, and thinking, "Who can I go call to be sure they come to see this hit before it closes?"
Flower Drum Song, through May 12, 2019, at Palo Alto Players, Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto CA. For information and tickets, visit www.paplayers.org or call 650-329-0891.