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'Flower Drum' merely pleasant in N.Y.

October 18, 2002|Linda Winer | Newsday

NEW YORK — In the 44 years since "Flower Drum Song" was a Broadway hit, the show has been dismissed as an inconsequential musical comedy with ravishing songs by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II and Asian American characters almost as stereotyped as they were foreign to the form.

A radically rewritten "Flower Drum Song" opened Thursday night at the Virginia Theatre. The songs -- including "You Are Beautiful" and "Love, Look Away" -- are as gorgeous as ever. The show has a completely new book by David Henry Hwang, author of "M. Butterfly" and "Golden Child." His work here is merely pleasant when we yearn for the wonderful.

There is no sin in pleasant, certainly, but it is shameful that there has been no second musical about Asian Americans in almost half a century. Hwang, with his acute antennae for cultural contradictions and his smart way with indignation, might still create the important new musical that brings their multilayered narrative to a broad audience. Short of that, if anyone could rescue this flawed but charming project from the small shelf of Rodgers and Hammerstein castoffs, Hwang would seem to be the man.

He has come up with a new story into which to thread the ready-made songs -- a technique that has more similarities to the "Mamma Mia!" trick than he and his serious creative team might like to admit. For all the thought that has gone into a reported six-year gestation and a successful run at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, however, the modest production superimposes a paint-by-number show-biz quality on the clash-of-cultures generational story.

Mei-Li, the new immigrant in San Francisco's Chinatown, has been made a political refugee instead of the mail-order bride from the original musical, based on the novel by C.Y. Lee. When played with the lyric purity, pluck and knowing stillness of Lea Salonga -- best known as Miss Saigon herself -- the character has an honesty that makes us overlook the more awkward, even ludicrous, developments around her.

The brightest new idea is to center almost all of the 1960 story in the Golden Pearl Theater, where first-generation immigrants are failing to find an audience for their classic Peking Opera. One night a week, Wang (Randall Duk Kim), a star in the pre-Mao old country, reluctantly turns over the run-down theater to his son Ta (Jose Llana) for a Chinese burlesque. Before long, the old theater has been converted into a popular nightclub. Thus, most of the songs become source material in a backstage culture-clash musical -- always a graceful way to reconcile stories in which people sing and dance.

The cast is first-rate and Robert Longbottom, late of the serious "Side Show," finds ample opportunity to run with the campy-extravaganza sensibility of his off-Broadway hit "Pageant." But we feel knocked around by the flip-flopping styles, which begin with a generic, knee-jerk cartoon scene of Communist Chinese oppression before getting comfortable with fabulous club numbers that slyly mock stereotypes and enjoy them. In "Chop Suey" the cheesecakey, fresh-off-the-boat dancers swan around wearing takeout containers.

Most disturbing is a first-act change in Wang's character, from bitter, proud traditionalist to vaudeville hotshot, that should have audiences suing for emotional whiplash. Kim, so impressive in Shakespeare throughout a rich career, is not just saddled with having to make an impossible personality switch seem natural. He also is given the worst of Hwang's lame attempts at Broadway jokes -- including "I expect women to walk six paces behind me, except when we walk into traffic."

Sandra Allen lives up to Nancy Kwan's star turn as Linda Low, the stunning nightclub singer who may, someday, realize the downside of assimilation. Allen has a wicked time with "I Enjoy Being a Girl."

Llana's usually strong crooner voice hinted at a head cold at Tuesday's preview, but he brings a poignant sensitivity to the questing young Chinese male. And he sings "You Are Beautiful" to Mei-Li with all the sweetness and ardor of passionate ambivalence.


"Flower Drum Song," Virginia Theatre, 245 West 52nd St., New York. (800) 432-7250

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