The updated book of Flower Drum Song, which premiered on Broadway in 2002, is a classic American story of immigrants who move to this country to make a better life for themselves and their families, and struggle with the conflict between retaining their cultural identity while still becoming part of America. Sometime in the 1950s, Mei-Li arrives in San Francisco's Chinatown after her father has died, at the opera house run by her father's best friend Wang. Wang proudly presents traditional Peking Opera despite the low attendance and his son Ta's attempts to turn the opera house into an Americanized nightclub to draw more crowds. Mei-Li gets a job performing and waitressing, befriends the brash dancer Linda, and falls in love with Ta. Talent agent Madame Liang arrives and helps them create a popular nightclub called "Club Chop Suey," where they "make something American with Chinese ingredients." Seeing the response of the crowd and the money the club is making, and unable to deny his love of performing, Wang abandons his traditional ways and joins in the show. Meanwhile, back in the central love story, Ta at first denies his feelings for Mei-Li, preferring someone more modern and American like Linda. But eventually he acknowledges his love for Mei-Li, his culture, and traditional Chinese opera.
|Mei-Li and Ta (Stephanie Bertumen and Wesley Mouri)|
rehearse their dance (photo by Rich Ryan)
|Linda Low (Meghan Kriedler) and her fresh-off-the-boat|
dancers (photo by Rich Ryan)
The design of the show is beautiful, a combination of '50s America and Chinese influences. Andrea M. Gross' costumes range from immigrant traveling clothes, to traditional Peking Opera robes, to gorgeous Chinese-inspired dresses, to '50s era dresses and suits. Penelope Freeh's choreography also spans both cultures, with lovely flowing traditional Chinese dances as well as raucous nightclub numbers. Mina Kinukawa's versatile scenic design is dominated by a large proscenium arch in two pieces which are moved and rotated to create different locations.
One of my favorite moments of the show, that I remember from the 2009 production, is at the end of the show when each of the actors steps forward and states where they were born, ranging from Minneapolis to Los Angeles to the Philippines to South Korea. It's a really beautiful real life reminder that people from all over the world have come together to form this beautiful and diverse country we call America. Flower Drum Song was probably programmed into Park Square and Mu's season a year or more ago. There's no way they could have predicted how timely this story is at this moment, and how important it is to tell immigrant stories right now, the stories of all Americans.
"To create something new, we must first love what is old." David Henry Hwang has done just that, and thereby rescued a beautiful classic score from a dated book that is stereotypical and offensive by today's standards (see also last year's newly rewritten Paint Your Wagon at the Ordway). It's such a smart idea, and allows us to continue to enjoy the classics while being more sensitive to the people whose stories are being told (I wish someone would do that with Miss Saigon, rewrite the book to be less offensive and more authentic storytelling, while retaining the beautiful music). In a way Flower Drum Song is a perfect metaphor, and a perfect show for Mu's 25th season, showcasing the talented artists they've cultivated over the years, telling an Asian American immigrant story that is at the same time a thoroughly American story, using America's best art form - musical theater. Like Ta says about himself, this Flower Drum Song is 100% Chinese, 100% American, and 100% entertaining.
Flower Drum Song continues at Park Square Theatre through February 19, with student matinees available for groups (see Park Square's website for details).
*I'm told there is an insert to the program that lists the musicians, but mine did not have one.