“To create something new, we must first love what is old.” The phrase echoes through Flower Drum Song, not only in the characters' reverence for Chinese opera, but in playwright David Henry Hwang's overhaul of the 1958 musical. While the old script was outdated and notoriously insensitive, the show presented an opportunity for Asian-American characters to sing Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes and participate in the rich history of American musical theater, Hwang's updated book preserves the classic songs, but sets them in a surprisingly rich tale of immigrant lives, generational tensions, and the power of art.
The show follows earnest ingénue Mei-Li (Stephanie Bertumen), who immigrates to San Francisco after the death of her political prisoner father. There, she meets the somewhat self-loathing Ta (Wesley Mouri), and his proud, traditional father Wang (Sherwin Resurreccion, chomping the scenery and having a great time). While Wang performs Chinese opera to empty houses, and the very American Linda Lo (Meghan Kriedler) performs stripteases to big crowds on Ta's weekly nightclub night. Kriedler is tough and smart as Linda, turning the sometimes sacchrine number “I Enjoy Being a Girl” into an arch tribute to the gender performance.
Seeing an opportunity to get the lovesick Ta off her back, Linda takes Mei-Li under her wing. Meanwhile, brassy show biz agent Madame Liang (Katie Bradley, giving me serious Princess Carolyn from Bojack Horseman vibes) sees the nightclub act as an opportunity to market Chinatown to westerners. But will the theater's transformation into “Club Chop Suey” be worth the cost?
The nightclub acts offer director Randy Reyes an opportunity to play with some ideas of representation. There was something nicely subversive about seeing an Asian man singing about romancing lots of European women in “Gliding Through My Memory,” especially when the women in question were in intentionally lazy drag. It felt like a bit of payback for decades of sloppy yellowface. Later numbers bring up notions of assimilation and the commodification of Chinese culture, literally packaging the dancers in sexy take out containers. The rich variety of Chinese-American stories on stage puts this uncomfortable simplicity in stark relief.
It's not just pretty people
Overall, the cast is strong. Bertumen and Mouri are sweet, appealing romantic leads. It's a testament to Mouri's charm that Ta's romantic indecision comes off as stupidity and not cruelty. (Deep, deep stupidity. At intermission, I turned to my theater companion and proclaimed the moral of the first act to be “Boys are Dumb.”) The connection that Ta and Mei-Li find with each other in their opera performances gives their romance a poetic heart and a sense of deep connection. It's not just two pretty people singing pretty songs about being in love, it's two young people discovering who they are, and who makes them want to be their best self. Never have I been so emotionally moved by the recitation of a pawn shop's business hours.
The members of the older generation are played by younger actors with grayed hair. It was initially a bit distracting, but their energetic and committed performances were among my favorites. Bradley comes roaring into the show like a steam engine, and the slow-burning chemistry between her and Resurreccion culminate in the charm bomb “Don't Marry Me,” a personal highlight. Eric “Pogi” Sumangil plays the bumbling Uncle Chin, and while he was not as strong vocally as his cast mates, he consistently got laughs from simply walking offstage.
Mina Kinukawa's versatile set transforms the space well, pivoting to offer a peek backstage and splitting to form different environments. Scaffolding upstage offers an opportunity to create dramatic silhouettes that sometimes enhanced the main action, and sometimes were more distracting.
The dance numbers were not as successful for me as the character driven numbers. Part of this may be due to a lack of precision that also bled through into some of the set changes. But, it’s a quibble when the entire cast is appealing, funny, and sincere.
One of the measures of a good musical is how well the songs stick with you. There are lots of hummable tunes, but I found myself haunted by Mei-Li's sadly hopeful refrain, especially considering the executive order restricting immigration signed on opening night: “I am going to like it here/There is something about this place.” This story of a Chinese refugee navigating America and her community is an important one to tell right now, and Park Square and Mu Performing Arts tell it well. This revival of Flower Drum Song gives audiences a new opportunity to love the old-fashioned sweep of Rodgers and Hammerstein's score.