Review: A foggy Chinatown the backdrop for Palo Alto Players’ delightful ‘Flower Drum Song’

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Ta (Jomar Martinez) and Mei-Li (Emily Song) search for love in San Francisco’s Chinatown of the 1960s in “Flower Drum Song,” through May 12th in Palo Alto. (Joyce Goldschmid photo)

It only takes a single viewing of the opening tableau of the Palo Alto Players production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Flower Drum Song” to feel the richness of what’s to come. There is a sliver of painful poetry as the ocean pelts the new immigrants in their rickety boat that brings them to the promise of a new land. There is also a palpable authenticity to the performances, a group of Asian artists grabbing hold of their narrative, despite the fact that this piece was not constructed as their narrative at all in the original 1958 Broadway production. Their faces were used, but their truths were not.

When this show premiered on Broadway in 1958 followed by the film version three years later, portrayals of Asian characters in film and on stage were a rarity. And for many years, “Flower Drum Song” was the only musical that featured Asian faces.

Oh, there have been plenty of Asian portrayals in film and opera, many of them downright offensive and embarrassing. It doesn’t take long to realize that this production, beautifully stewarded by director Lily Tung Crystal, is a more honest interpretation which comes from David Henry Hwang’s complete 2002 makeover of the show’s book.

While some of the performances are a little imbalanced and a few moments of choreography didn’t always cohere, there are certainly plenty of wonderful touches that bring forth a show that is rich in culture and heritage, a thrilling investment for an Asian story to be told in the way it needs to be told.

This story starts and finishes with Chinese opera performer Mei-Li (a fantastic, honest turn by Homestead High School senior Emily Song). Her hints of sadness, guarded joy and path to discovery create the truth required for this pivotal role. When she arrives to San Francisco after her father dies in prison defying the communists, she only possesses the clothes on her back and a flower drum (thankfully, this premise is very different than the mail order bride trope which brought her over in the original version). She begins waitressing at a nightclub featuring performers who are spending their time bringing authentic Chinese dances to the masses of San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Those two who present these authentic works are her dad’s old buddy Wang Chi-Yang (a warm and deft Bryan Pangilinan) and his foster brother Chin (the charmer Joey Alvarado).

On a good night, the aforementioned masses may top out at around six people. Authentic Chinese culture on Grant Avenue isn’t what these white audiences crave. After all, the play is set in the early 1960s, right around the time Mickey Rooney was dazzling folks with his piece of shit portrayal as Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffanys.”

So a regal name like the Golden Pearl Theatre disappears, and in its place comes Club Chop Suey, replete with dancing girls in takeout boxes, fierce fans that snap off the dancers wrists and gigantic chopsticks. The crowds and the money start to roll in and Wang, who at first is resistant to the change in programming, becomes the ultra-cool Sammy Fong and the days of beautiful Chinese traditions move on. It’s a change that was also encouraged by Madame Liang (A strong take by Melinda Meeng).

Choreographer Alex Hsu and Costume Designer Y. Sharon Peng had one helluva playground to work in, with dazzlers like the acoustic sound feast “Fan Tan Fannie” and the gargantuan number “Chop Suey” frenetically bouncing all over the deck. That playground had much to do with the wonderfully sly set designed by Ting-Na Wang, full of great San Francisco touchstones. And don’t forget music director Amanda Ku’s leading of a shredding 10-piece orchestra with its rich and full sound.

The new commitment to this type of entertainment ultimately becomes unsettling to Wang’s son Ta (a solid Jomar Martinez), who was certainly all for a nightclub vibe once a week, but not like this, with Wang going a bit too hard on the Chinese self-deprecation. Wang even sneaks himself into another by snagging the costume of Harvard (wonderfully funny Bryan Munar). It is one of the more intriguing aspects of Hwang’s script, exploring portrayals of people of color in popular entertainment.

The Rodgers and Hammerstein estate is famous for its rigidity in the way it allows their productions to be approached and staged. Certainly, Hwang’s changes were not taken lightly, yet certainly overdue. But in so many instances of this production, you feel moments that tell a more truthful immigration story. The ideal of America and its promise is not made glorious here. Just notice the workers who toil in the depths as they create thousands of fortune cookies, one of many examples where immigrants in this country live beneath the shadows to provide for others. Or even someone like the stripper Linda Low (a delightful Marah Sotelo), who takes control over her own femininity in “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” and certainly dreams of mainstream stardom. And even look at the arc of Mei-Li and Chao (a tender yet fierce John Paul Kilecdi-Li). They are ready to give up on this so-called American dream. How difficult America must be if you kill yourself to get here only to decide it wasn’t worth it in the end, the honesty and longing of the homeland too much to live without.

The script does have its problematic moments, much of it having to do with Ta. While he is a young man of virtue, he still has these odd moments of being a product of the patriarchy. Diving in to kiss Mei-Li because, well, she has lips and was standing there is an obvious bad look. Or even saying things to implore her return to work such as, “Come back to the club because I like who I was when you were around.” That’s some man-level stupidity right there, as if she needs to be concerned with making sure that HE’s a great guy. In Ta’s hands, Martinez handles these awkward moments with a gentle aplomb, despite a few vocals that were a bit shaky, with a nice redeeming payoff in the denouement.

The precocious Song as Mei-Li is wonderful. Song’s dynamic, understated sensibilities and buttery-sweet singing voice is fantastic with a clean, empathetic strength, and as an actor, she listens beautifully. So many of those around her have more to say and do, but it’s the listening she does that builds all of the truth she shares when it’s time to react.

The default narrative of immigrants leaving the old country only to find pure bliss in the new one is often a stretch. But this production, with its bold aesthetic and commitment to tell a true story from people who have lived that story, is what the American theatre needs, maybe more now than it ever has. And much like a fun night at Club Chop Suey, watching this “Flower Drum Song” allows anyone to have themselves a time.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Palo Alto Players presents “Flower Drum Song”
Music by Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, II
Book revised in 2002 by David Henry Hwang
Based on the novel by C.Y. Lee
Directed by Lily Tung Crystal
The word: Despite some imbalance, delightful production which corrects the mistakes of the original Broadway show, featuring wonderful touches inside of foggy San Francisco.
Stars: 4 out of 5
Through March 12th
Running time: Two hours, 30 minutes with a 15-minute intermission
Lucie Stern Theater
1305 Middlefield Rd., Palo Alto, CA
Tickets range from $25 – $55
For tickets, call (650) 329-0891 or visit http://www.paplayers.org

 

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