Reviewed by Judy Richter
When playwright David Henry Hwang revised the book for "Flower Drum Song" in 2002, he updated and simplified it, reducing both the number of characters and the number of settings in the original 1958 book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joseph Fields. They, in turn, had based their book on a novel by C.Y. Lee. One thing that Hwang didn't eliminate was the memorable music by Richard Rodgers with lyrics by Hammerstein. American Musical Theatre of San Jose is staging the revised version under the direction of Gabriel Barre.
It's an absorbing tale that has an age-old plot at its core: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. In "Flower Drum Song," however, there's much more than that as it relates the saga of a young woman, Mei-Li (Michelle Liu Coughlin), who escapes Communist China with little more than a flower drum and wise words from her father, who was seized and killed. She endures a grueling sea voyage and lands in San Francisco in 1960. There she makes her way to Chinatown and a Chinese opera theater owned by Wang Chi-Yang (Joseph Anthony Foronda), a friend of her father. She's attracted to Wang's son, Wang Ta (Paolo Montalban), who turns the theater into a nightclub once a week. He in turn is attracted to the club's star, Linda Low (Emily Hsu), but it's not reciprocal.
Over time, the nightclub replaces Chinese opera and becomes a huge hit, thanks in part to the show biz moxie of Madame Rita Liang (Erin Quill), who becomes Linda's agent. Even Chi-Yang gives up his opposition to the venture and becomes one of its performers. In the meantime, Mei-Li feels rejected by Ta and goes to work in a fortune cookie factory alongside Chao Hai-Lung (Jared Lee), who wants her to go back to China with her. Of course all turns out well in the end.
Along the way, the audience is treated to some signature Rodgers & Hammerstein songs like "A Hundred Million Miracles," "I Enjoy Being a Girl," "You Are Beautiful," "Grant Avenue," "Sunday," "Chop Suey" and "Love, Look Away." All are well sung, and many are accompanied by some terrific dancing choreographed by Vince Pesce. The scenes with Chinese movement are overseen by Jamie H.J. Guan.
The cast also is terrific, especially Coughlin as the sweet, innocent Mei-Li, Hsu as the sexy but smart Linda and Quill as the brassy Madame Liang. Foronda is initially too blustery as the set-in-his-ways Chi-Yang, but he mellows out and loosens up when he joins the nightclub act. Rod Voltaire-Edora is a nicely fussy Harvard, the costume designer, and Alvin Ing is wonderfully wise as the elderly Uncle Chin. Montalban sings and dances well as Ta, but he doesn't seem entirely comfortable in the role. Musical direction is by William Liberatore with the flexible set by Robin Wagner, lighting by Karen Spahn, colorful costumes by Gregg Barne and sound by Hage Van Dijk. Barre's direction is fast-paced yet smooth. His staging of the Prologue, which takes Mei-Li from China to San Francisco, is noteworthy for its imaginative simplicity.