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Flower Drum Song Musical and Album Reviews

By Cary Wong


Flower Drum Song: The stage musical (2002) ** 1/2

RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN

Virginia Theater, New York
 

Flower Drum Song: The movie (1961) ***

RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN

Decca 440 064 531-2

15 tracks - 53:01

Flower Drum Song has always been a sentimental favorite of movie musical fans, and yet there has never been a major theatrical revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's hit, despite the fact that it played for 600 performances in 1958 and was a successful movie in 1961. The reason? Flower Drum Song has been perceived as out-dated, with its mail-order bride plot and quaint outsider-looking-in portrayal of the Asian characters. Sure, if someone wrote the show now, it would be considered offensive, but as a piece in history, the original show was pretty tame even in these PC times. It was the first musical of its kind, so there were bound to be some feathers ruffled -- but, there has never been a Broadway musical since Flower Drum Song which depicts Asian Americans in contemporary America, so what's there to compare it to?

Now, Tony Award-winning playwright, David Henry Hwang has thrown out the original book and has written what he calls a "revision" of the show, retaining most of the songs, but adding a updated and more PC plot to the show. Instead of a mail order bride coming to Chinatown to live the American dream, we get a woman escaping Maoist China from persecution. So, when she sings "I am going to like it here," it seems like a foregone conclusion.

The revival, currently at the Virginia Theater in New York, is a nice try, but ultimately, I think it works about as well as the original book would have. Hwang, the talented, but didactic playwright of M. Butterfly, is too heavy-handed to to take on what is essentially a romantic comedy. Sure, Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote serious musicals, but except for Cinderella and State Fair, which weren't written specifically for the stage, this is the most lightweight of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. Even The Sound of Music had Nazis. But, trying to use the songs from Flower Drum Song and turn it into Carousel is a Sisyphian task at best

This is no more apparent than in the character of Mei-Li, played by Lea Salonga as moody and as melancholy as any character from Les Miserables. Her journey on the boat from Communist China to San Francisco is depicted in the opening number, "A Hundred Million Miracles," which used to be a hopeful folk song, but is now a defiant, rebel tune. Strained, but doable. This opening number also feels eerily similar to the opening of Mulan, with the depiction of a daughter honoring her father (it doesn't help that Salonga provided vocals for both daughters). Mei-Li ends up at a Chinatown theater run by a friend of her dead father, and proceeds to help the friend's son, Ta (Jose Llana) transform the theater from a dying Chinese Opera space to a nightclub.

It is at this nightclub that things become dicey. The nightclub acts are seen through the older generation eyes as offensive, and yet they're shown as full production numbers for the enjoyment of the audience. Hwang is essentially saying: "Look at how offensive the song 'Chop Suey' is, and now let's hear it again!" By the end of the musical, the characters may look fondly on the theater's operatic past, but it's too little too late.

Still, there are many pleasures to be had from this new production. Lea Solanga may be playing a walking, brooding rock whenever she's on stage, but she possesses a powerhouse voice and provides a stirring Act One finale. Sandra Allen is the real find of the show, playing the lead of the nightclub show. Although her character is pretty much a stock character, Allen at least seems to enjoy her vampy role, and she can play the heck out of a burlesque song. The supporting cast is uniformly adept, with Jodi Long as a battleaxe of a talent agent stealing every scene she is in.

The musical, as directed by Robert Longbottom, is never light on its feet. And, the use of chopsocky music during scene-changes is never acceptable. And did I mention the dancing Chinese take-out food containers? Better not. However, there are some wonderful songs like "Love, Look Away" and "You are Beautiful." DRG Records is releasing the cast album of this production in early 2003, and this is probably the best way to enjoy the show. Without the pretensions and baggage of the actual stage show, the music really does hold up well.

If you can't wait to hear the wonderful score, you may want to check out the recent release of the movie soundtrack of Flower Drum Song, available for the first time on CD. Sure, it may be square, but how fun is it to hear B.J. Baker (dubbing for Nancy Kwan) belt out "I Enjoy Being a Girl" and "The Other Generation" (dropped by the current production). There is also a bonus track of a Far Eastern arrangement of "Love, Look Away" by Rosemary Clooney.

The biggest joy of the CD is the glorious arrangements of the songs conducted Alfred Newman. Yes, there are some out-dated arrangements, but how can one resist the catchy Overture or the lovely "Dream Ballet." Flower Drum Song may not have been a great movie musical, but this Henry Koster directed film will always be fondly remembered. Just read David Henry Hwang's affectionate liner notes for the movie, and you may understand my conundrum with the new version.
 
 

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