Flower Drum Song is a timely, flawed immigrant tale

Mu Performing Arts/Park Square Theatre, through February 19

Wesley Mouri and Stephanie Bertumen in Flower Drum Song. Photo by Rich Ryan.

David Henry Hwang‘s rewrite of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s now thoroughly antiquated Flower Drum Song, being staged as a co-production of Park Square Theatre and Mu Performing Arts through February 19, explores the tension for immigrants to assimilate and simultaneously respect their history, while retaining the source material’s songs and vintage melodrama elements. The result is a mixed bag of hard-earned insights and an assortment of hollow distractions. Strength is found in its overarching themes, but there is also too much in the way of half-baked romantic digressions.

That said, many of the show’s themes are more urgent now than ever and provide insight into the immigrant experience in fresh ways. By resituating the plot firmly in the world of Show Business, the play adroitly explores the ways minority populations are tokenized and exploited as novelty. Further, the show addresses the impulse to monetize this novelty in a land that is not interested in authenticity, provoking intergenerational conflict that progresses in unexpected ways.

The story is set in motion by the arrival of Mei-li, a young woman “fresh off the boat” from China, seeking a new life in 1960 San Francisco following the death of her father at the hands of Mao’s regime. She seeks out her father’s old friend Wang Chi-yang, the owner and star of a failing Chinese Opera. Mei-li also meets and becomes quickly smitten with Wang Chi-yang’s son Ta, who has been begrudgingly playing the female roles opposite his father in the operas while successfully turning the space into a nightclub one night a week. Ta is pursuing the nightclub’s main dancer/stripper Linda Lo, whose new agent Rita Liang seeks to transform the opera house (and Chinatown entirely) into a full-time nightclub (and tourist attraction), turning the venue into an “oriental minstrel show.”

As this synopsis hints, there is a lot going on here. So much, in fact, that few characters are properly served. Some actors manage to inject nuance into their roles, particularly Sherwin Resurreccion as an internally conflicted Wang Chi-yang, whose underserved personal journey may be the most interesting in the show.

Stephanie Bertumen also provides a believably youthful, wide-eyed naivete as ingenue Mei-li. Yet, her character is oddly and disappointingly deprived of agency, relegated to reacting to Ta’s romantic whims despite her complex backstory. Wesley Mouri‘s Ta, on the other hand, is given a full character arc as he explores his relationship to his past, and Mouri is charming in the role, particularly in moments when he breaks away from leading-man sentimentality. He also provides the show’s strongest singing, which is generally a bit mixed.

On the whole, Randy Reye‘s direction of the actors is overly broad. While there are jolts of comic energy from charismatic secondary characters (Meghan Kreidler‘s Linda, Katie Bradley‘s Rita, and Eric “Pogi” Sumangil’s Chin), the show doesn’t consistently sustain or build upon this energy.  Flower Drum Song also suffers from a thin band. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s original music, although somewhat updated here, begs for a fuller orchestra, and this production unfortunately features only a four-piece band.

Nevertheless, this mounting of Flower Drum Song is timely as American society grapples with questions of immigration and minorities feel increased pressure to assimilate. In coming to new lands seeking opportunity and refuge, these sojourners inevitably find their customs misunderstood and unappreciated. This production’s flaws are most apparent when it comes to gender and sexual identity, but it aptly grapples with the issues relating to America’s complex multiculturalism. At a time when such conversations are urgently needed, productions like this can be vital.

David and Chelsea Berglund review movies on their site Movie Matrimony.

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