Sunday, January 29, 2017

Follow this Flower Drum Song

Give me your tired, your poor, your hungry....

Photo by Rich Ryan.

Immigration is a hot topic these days, so the new joint production from Park Square Theatre and Mu Performing Arts couldn't have come at a better time. Flower Drum Song, a seldom-performed part of Rogers and Hammerstein's considerable repertoire, tells the story of Mei-Li, a young Chinese immigrant who flees communism and lands on the shores of San Francisco. She follows the only address she has to the Golden Pearl theater, which is owned by her dead father's best childhood friend Wang. Wang, a proponent of the ancient Chinese opera, is in eternal struggle with his son Ta, who wants to bring a more modern, American program to the Golden Pearl's stage. Economics decides the fate of the Golden Pearl, which becomes Club Chop Suey after Ta's star showgirl Linda brings on a new manager, Madame Liang. Madame Liang has a knack for savvy marketing and flashy programming; with her guidance and Wang's broadening perspective, Club Chop Suey becomes a hot new venue.
Photo by Rich Ryan.
Concurrent with this story is the love triangle between Mei-Li, Ta, and Linda. Each chases or runs away from the other, culminating in a whirlwind of epiphanies towards the end of the show. Ultimately, each finds their place in an America that doesn't fully accept them; but that's okay, because Mei-Li, Ta and Linda each find their own unique, hybrid way of life that is true of every immigrant who has settled in America. The show culminates in a powerful curtain call, in which each actor steps forward and states the place of their birth. The timely message could not be clearer: America is a land of people from near and far, many of whom have fled (or are fleeing) persecution in their home countries. Not only is this diversity what makes America great, but it also should unite us. The finale is perfectly timed and had the audience leaping to their feet - it couldn't have been better executed.

As far as music goes, this is not Rogers and Hammerstein's greatest work but it's still fun. "I Enjoy Being a Girl" is probably the most familiar piece from this show, and it gets a solid rendering here. "A Hundred Million Miracles," the main theme of Flower Drum Song, is musically a little underwhelming but definitely grows on you throughout the show. "Gliding Through My Memoree" and "Don't Marry Me" provide plenty of laughs and some welcome comedic cameos from ensemble members. The most beautiful musical moments come from Mei-Li and Ta, who have wonderful chemistry and beautiful dances together in songs like "You Are Beautiful" and "Like a God."
Photo by Rich Ryan.
The best part of this show is the renewed book, written by David Henry Hwang (who was in attendance on opening night!). The story feels very modern and fresh, and manages to tell a very difficult, serious tale with so much humor and nuance. Ta and Mei-Li represent the struggles of all of us (or our forefathers and mothers, at the very least) as we struggle to fit into a blended culture. Where is the line between giving away your heritage and becoming accepted in your new society? Which traditions do you choose to keep or to discard? When is the time appropriate to give up on your dream and return home?
Photo by Rich Ryan.
You can tell that the cast is engaged in this script, and that really helps to sell the show. Stephanie Bertumen (last seen in The Last Firefly, which I loved), is great as Mei-Li. Her performance is understated and welcoming, truly drawing you into Mei-Li's struggles and dreams. She also has great chemistry with Wesley Mouri, who plays Ta. Mouri displays a lyrical grace, particularly with Ta's traditional dance scenes, and it's easy to see him as a Clark Gable or Cary Grant figure. Meghan Kreidler is spirited as Linda and leads the ensemble through the dance scenes. Sherwin Ressurreccion and Katie Bradley are hilarious and perfectly paired as Wang and Madame Liang, respectively. Eric "Pogi" Sumangil provides deft touches of humor as Wang's friend Harvard, and always provides a shining moment with a bright smile.
Photo by Rich Ryan.
The set is pretty minimalist, mostly focused on two large interchangeable theater fronts (which double as storefronts, a restaurant, a name it). Sets are relatively minimal too, and the pit is always in the background, hovering past the action. The costumes are the best part of the production design, featuring hand fans, strategically placed "takeout boxes", themed pieces and some gorgeous, ornate robes. The costumes help provide a sense of humor to the show, and they go well with the specially designed scarves that decorate Park Square's entrance.

Flower Drum Song is slow to start, and only starts to pick up two thirds of the way through Act I. If you're not already familiar with Chinese history, some of the beginning may be a little confusing until explained later on in the show. And while the cast holds its own musically, this isn't the most profound singing or dancing you'll ever hear. I wish there was a little more hard tap dancing to help drive through the musical interludes.
Photo by Rich Ryan.
That being said, I still really enjoyed Flower Drum Song. The cast has so much heart, and they really pull you into the story. The book is so contemporary (and after the events of this weekend feels urgently necessary) and it was really nice to see something that genuinely made me smile. You can't help but love Mei-Li and Ta and Wang and Madame Liang and all of the other well-rounded characters of Flower Drum Song by the time you're done. They're just too familiar, too engaging, and too sentimental to shut out. And that's really where Flower Drum Song's power lays: by telling a universal American story, it can appeal to all of us despite our cosmetic differences. If you're a fan of musicals see this to expand your repertoire; if you're a fan of reaching out to shorten the distances between us in this increasingly stratified society, see this to hear one more perspective of life as a new member of this country. You might be surprised what you learn.

Flower Drum Song plays at Park Square Theatre through February 19; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link. 

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