Many older musicals go in for a refreshing facelift, but this version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Flower Drum Song,” with a spankin’ new book by David Henry Hwang, is a lot closer to wholesale reconstructive surgery. Some of it comes off a bit plastic and creates some new wrinkles while eliminating old ones, but this bold theatrical operation, five years in the making, must be deemed an artistic success, revealing a revitalized score and a dramatic complexion that’s far richer than the original. This patient brings new meaning to the term revival, and it’s too compelling an effort to imagine that it wouldn’t make its way to Broadway.
Those who recall the 1958 original, or more likely the 1961 film version, will remember that the show began with arranged bride Mei-Li arriving in America. But this is not your father’s “Flower Drum Song,” and instead we begin in China, where, to the strains of “A Hundred Million Miracles,” Mei-Li (Lea Salonga) watches her father tear down a banner of Mao and get dragged away by the Communists, depicted in a marching-style dance. His last words to her, and his gift of the title drum, send her on a journey to America, where she seeks out her father’s old friend from opera school, Master Wang (Tzi Ma) and develops a crush on his son Wang Ta (Jose Llana), singing “I Am Going to Like It Here.”
Ditching the arranged marriage is a small but significant alteration. Ta is still torn between the very Chinese Mei-Li and the very Americanized Linda Low (Sandra Allen), but instead of the generational conflict between father and son manifesting itself in whom Ta should marry, it emerges in a battle of theatrical form. Wang continues to perform Chinese opera to empty houses in his “Golden Pearl Theater,” while Ta turns the space into a nightclub one night a week, with Linda starring in flashy numbers boasting plenty of flesh.
“I Enjoy Being a Girl” begins as a way of Linda explaining American femininity to Mei-Li, but transforms midway into a splashy nightclub number, with inflections of burlesque nicely incorporated into David Chase’s always smart and sometimes genuinely surprising arrangements and orchestrations.
Soon, the nightclub has taken over, with the assistance of Madame Liang (a terrific Jodi Long), a character who replaces the kindly assimilationist aunt from the original with a crassly assimilationist agent-entrepreneur. Leading the company in an energized “Grant Avenue,” she renames the place “Club Chop Suey” and turns it into a tacky but profitable tourist trap for whites who venture into San Francisco’s Chinatown.
This is where Hwang’s conception of how to keep the Rodgers and Hammerstein songs and yet find a new, more believable context for them takes full shape. Rather than Chinese-Americans singing “Chop Suey” because they aspire to assimilate, the song becomes Chinese-Americans feeding a white audience exactly what they want, a kitschy version of Chinese life that’s so adulterated it is referred to convincingly as a minstrel show.
Hwang manages to have it both ways, commenting on the entertainment while still delivering it. And it works. The numbers tell the story and engage at the same time, helped by some outrageously over-the-top costuming from Gregg Barnes and a clever, quite simple set design from Robin Wagner, with a pagoda-inspired outline, that maximizes the space and encompasses the elegant and the chintzy. Director-choreographer Robert Longbottom makes extremely amusing use of Asian fans for the rollicking version of “Fan Tan Fannie,” the visual highlight of the night. And in an inspired touch, the bamboo poles that served as swords in an earlier demonstration of Chinese opera are used as oversized chopsticks in “Chop Suey,” which opens Act II.
Hwang’s book is filled with plenty of one-line zingers that bite at both Chinese and American culture, poking constant fun at cultural cliches. The material can be very politically incorrect — Mei-Li is referred to often as someone “fresh off the boat,” and anyone who thinks Hwang is looking to smooth out the edges of the original will find that he has sharpened them instead. But, importantly, and central to the commercial future of the piece, there remains a gentleness, a sense of compassion and understanding for the characters’ plight, that keeps this reworking from growing too cynical.
That softer side comes to the forefront in the second act, which is heavy on the love plot. As he did with the theatrical aspects, Hwang wants to have his cake and eat it too: He makes fun of fortune cookies, and yet it’s one of these fortunes that carries the ultimate moral of the tale.
The narrative flow can be a bit choppy and uneven, but the material is so rich, perhaps even over-saturated, with cultural identity conflict that it really is amazing that Hwang and his collaborators have achieved even this degree of fluidity. Still, some structural rethinking is necessary: Act I is twice the length of Act II, and the showier numbers get exhausted too early.
Longbottom tries to compensate for this by turning the curtain call into a production number, but it’s actually a tad confusing. Tinkering is undoubtedly difficult, since you can’t add new songs, but there seems to be enough room in this structure for strategic reshuffling.
Other problems may be less resolvable. In Mei-Li, Hwang has not exactly created a believable figure. This is too angelic, too wise a character to be more than a theatrical device, especially in the scenes where she seeks to help father and son understand each other. And the dilemma Hwang has created for her in Act II is a bit too obvious, too cliched to be involving.
The entire evening is excellent musically, with the small six-member orchestra not limiting things at all. Salonga’s voice is as pure as ever, and Llana demonstrates vocal abilities at the same level. There’s not a lot of chemistry between these two, which hopefully can be remedied. Both have been selected more for their singing abilities than their acting, which is merely adequate. Allen is the well-rounded standout, singing and dancing and managing to act what’s probably the toughest part of all, delivering a moment of true honesty toward the end that’s really striking. Long and Tzi Ma make a terrific pair in their comic roles, with Alvin Ing (who was in the original touring company) and Allen Liu providing deft support in small, newly minted roles.