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'Flower Drum Song' blossoms anew

Palo Alto Players' version of Rodgers and Hammerstein Chinatown musical is kitschy, moving and fun

"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 And the 1958 original is seen by many as hopelessly outdated, corny at best and perpetuating offensive stereotypes at worst.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 Theatre, 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.

Cost: $34-$49.

Info: PA Players.

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Comments

1 person likes this
Posted by carlt
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 2, 2019 at 9:05 pm

carlt is a registered user.

We saw Flower Drum Song last weekend and highly recommend it. Great singing and overall very very well done. An enjoyable evening of local theater that definitely exceeded my expectations. The entire cast was outstanding.


Like this comment
Posted by 2nd Gen
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 2, 2019 at 11:22 pm

The classic film is streaming right now. It is still worth seeing despite the truly cringeworthy stereotyping, and hilarious casting of any-Asians-will-do with obviously not Chinese accents (like Japanese). Then there’s the Yellowface issue. But worth seeing if only for the views of the SF waterfront skyline in the 50’s.

It’s probably worth contrasting the two. It sounds like a clever update.


Like this comment
Posted by Green Gables
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 3, 2019 at 6:10 am

Green Gables is a registered user.

Flower Drum Song was quite good. The actors are fabulous.


12 people like this
Posted by What You See Is What You Get
a resident of Community Center
on May 3, 2019 at 9:08 am

> It is still worth seeing despite the truly cringeworthy stereotyping, and hilarious casting of any-Asians-will-do with obviously not Chinese accents (like Japanese). Then there’s the Yellowface issue.

Alec Guinness in 'A Majority of One' & Mickey Rooney in 'Breakfast At Tiffany's' were classic Hollywood misrepresentations of Asians/Japanese. Marlon Brando was OK playing an Okinawan in 'Teahouse of the August Moon'.

In the Flower Drum Song movie, Jack Soo had to change his professional acting name from Goro Suzuki because the producers thought that Chinese moviegoers would be offended by a Japanese actor playing a Chinese so recently after the end of World War Two. He later became well-known for his role in TV's 'Barney Miller'.

Anna May Wong coveted the role given to Louise Rainer in 'The Good Earth' and Paul Muni played her Chinese husband. Louise Rainer went on to receive the Academy Award for her portrayal.

And of course the famous detective Charlie Chan was played by Sidney Toler, Roland Winters and Warner Oland.

In the other hand, you don't see too many white actors playing African-Americans. They did for awhile in vaudeville and of course Al Jolson's movie rendition is well-known among classic movie buffs.

Geeze. Go back in time & countless Caucasians played Native American Indians in Hollywood westerns as well.

I suspect that much of this can be attributed to a lack of qualified actors and Hollywood racism of the time. On the other hand, with the proper make-up, a white actor can play just about anyone.

This cannot be said for certain ethnicities as a casting director probably would not suggest having James Earl Jones playing George Washington or the late Bruce Lee assuming the role of Michael Corleone in 'The Godfather'.

Actors like the late Charles Bronson & Anthony Quinn could seemingly play any ethnicity.


8 people like this
Posted by Keep It Real
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on May 3, 2019 at 3:46 pm

>> On the other hand, with the proper make-up, a white actor can play just about anyone.

Asians cannot play African-Americans (and vice-versa) no matter how good an actor they are. Viewing audiences would simply not buy into the presentation.

Asians and African-Americans cannot play white people either and inter-racial romances are still viewed with some apprehension in certain southern states and red voting regions.

A a result, many Hollywood studios do not want to spend mega-millions of dollars producing a movie that will not successfully sell to movie-goers if it is perceived as unrealistic or potentially controversial.

The Europeans might go for this kind of stuff but most American movie-goers are unacquainted with the avant-garde movies produced over there.






Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 3, 2019 at 11:27 pm

How well earthlings, with proper make-up, can portray aliens.


9 people like this
Posted by Ming Le
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on May 4, 2019 at 9:18 am

[Post removed.]


Like this comment
Posted by Flower Drum Songs Is Obsolete
a resident of Community Center
on May 6, 2019 at 6:29 pm

from the PA Weekly account...
"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."

This storyline is dated as Deng Xiaoping converted the People's Republic of China into a socialist-capitalist country. As a result China's economy flourished.

The modern day Flower Drum Song should be about all of the wealthy Chinese factory owners moving to the SF Bay Area with their newly acquired wealth.

They don't resituate to San Francisco's Chinatown. They move to Crescent Park, Los Altos and Cupertino and shop at Nieman-Marcus and they motor around in Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs and Teslas.


4 people like this
Posted by Flower Drum Songs Is Obsolete
a resident of Community Center
on May 6, 2019 at 6:30 pm

from the PA Weekly account...
"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."

This storyline is dated as Deng Xiaoping converted the People's Republic of China into a socialist-capitalist country. As a result China's economy flourished.

The modern day Flower Drum Song should be about all of the wealthy Chinese factory owners moving to the SF Bay Area with their newly acquired wealth.

They don't resituate to San Francisco's Chinatown. They move to Crescent Park, Los Altos and Cupertino and shop at Nieman-Marcus and they motor around in Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs and Teslas.

And more power to them as there is a changing of the guard in some of the more affluent neighborhoods.


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