“TO CREATE SOMETHING NEW WE MUST FIRST LOVE WHAT IS OLD” SAYS MEI-LI THE STORY OF IMMIGRATION AND ACCEPTANCE IS A MILLION MIRACLES
Portsmouth Square Chinatown, San Francisco takes center stage this spring at the Palo Alto Players terrific production of FLOWER DRUM SONG. The Chop Suey club is open at the Lucie Stern stage through May 12th in Palo Alto. It has been a great theatre season 2018 - 2019 seeing Asian inspired stories on Bay Area stages. The prolific playwright Lauren Yee has had two of her best works on Bay stages this season including THE GREAT LEAP and THE HOUSE OF YEE both about her family and Father. David Henry Hwang’s new work the Broadway Bound SOFT POWER will connect as the new KING AND I. This spring the beloved Roger and Hammerstein, David Henry Hwang adaptation of FLOWER DRUM SONG brings a Chinese celebration to Silicon Valley.
Author C.Y. Lee’s 1957 novel “The Flower Drum Song” explored conflict among first and second generation immigrants in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Mr Lee lived until he was 102, he passed away in the fall of 2018. His work provided the source material for the two Broadway Musicals 43 years apart and sparked a cultural debate about Asian stereotypes. FLOWER DRUM SONG first arrived on Broadway in 1958 with a mostly white cast, yet it did make Miyoshi Umeki a star. In 2002, playwright David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly) wrote a new book, retaining most of Rodgers and Hammerstein's score but with new plot and character changes and two new songs. Hwang writes a more universal FLOWER DRUM SONG that still deals with cultural assimilation, but now subtexts the repression of Maoist China. Still, the original theme of immigration and the goal for the American Dream remains at the core.
Director Lily Tung Crystal, fresh from her sold out run of ALLEGIANCE at the Contra Costa Civic Theatre, brings some of that same talent to Hwang’s version of FLOWER DRUM. “Growing up as a first generation American-born Chinese girl who wanted to become a theatre artist, I didn’t have many role models in the industry. I didn’t come across the film FLOWER DRUM SONG until I was in high school, it changed my belief in what was possible as an Asian-American performer.” says Crystal. “Playwright David Henry Hwang has also called the original musical his ‘guilty pleasure,’ and I was excited when he decided to rewrite the book to speak to a more contemporary Asian- American experience. Hwang has modernized the characters and story to better represent the Chinese American experience. This FLOWER DRUM SONG challenges the issues of identity, immigration, and representation.”
Crystal has cast a local entire Asian cast, “FLOWER DRUM SONG is a demanding show that requires triple-threat performers who can sing, act, and dance. We’re proud of our cast that comprises all local Asian and Asian-American performers. Casting a demanding show like this is multi-faceted and sometimes challenging, and we were committed to casting this show with equity and fair racial representation.”
Mei-Li played by the wonderful Emily Song is a refugee from the turmoil of China under its new Communist regime after her father is killed in the civil wars. As she leaves her homeland the company sings the banner song “A Hundred Million Miracles”. Director Crystal keeps the dramatic bamboo theme in the opening, leaving the stage sparse and creating her long journey with an extended prologue that carries us through events in China, across the sea in steerage, to arrival in San Francisco. Song has a wonderful voice as she sings “I am Going To Like It Here”. Alone in a new city, she seeks out a family friend, Wang, played by the distinguished Bryan Pangilinan. In China Wang was her father's dear friend and colleague in the Chinese opera. Set designer Ting-Na Wang created a colorful Chinatown full of detail as the setting changes to the Portsmouth Square Opera house and later the Chop Suey Club.
Wang runs a Chinese opera house that plays to empty seats, except one night a week when he allows Ta to present what he calls "Night Club Night." Those burlesque titillating performances are the main source of money for Wang's opera house. Ta is played by the exceptional Jomar Martinez who has done FLOWER DRUM in the past. Martinez shows off his keen tenor voice in his two solos “Sunday” and the emotional “Like a God”. Pangilinan sings “Chop Suey” as he makes his transition from old school opera singer to nightclub performer, Sammy Wong. Pangilinan has a strong voice and along side Martinez the two create that generation gap in cultures that Hwang keeps intact in his new version.
Mei-Li, trained in traditional opera by her father, joins Wang's company with Ta coaching her in the roles. She quickly falls in love with Ta, while he pursues the star of his show, Linda Low, played by the stunning Marah Sotelo. The Broadway hits from the show “I Enjoy Being a Girl” and “Fan Tan Fannie” both are show stoppers as performed by the brillant Sotelo. Low’s main ambition is to leave Chinatown and become a Hollywood star. We also meet Chao, played by the proud John Paul Kilecdi-Li, who is a peasant who traveled from China with Mei-Li, and he is in love with her.
Crystal’s stunning direction includes some bright stage movement and dance by choreographer, Alex Hsu. The “Fan Tan” number was eye candy with Sotelo as the centerpiece cabaret girl. Assistant director Vinh Nguyen kept the larger production numbers smooth with a 20 member cast. “Grant Avenue” and “Chop Suey” fill the Lucie Stern with cheers from the sold out Sunday audience.
The supporting cast includes the charming Joey Alvarado as Chin the handy man at the club, the impressive Bryan Munar as Harvard, Ta’s assistant and friend, and the graceful Melinda Meeng as Madame Liang. The busy ensemble fills in for the Chinese Opera Company, Immigrants, Nightclub Performers, Factory Workers, and Citizens of Chinatown are the energetic Kevin Achas, Kristy Aquino, Duc T. Duong, Yoshi Humfeld, Miko Ison, Ruri Kodama, Karen Law, Justin Lopez, Vinh G. Nguyen, Masami Savage, Eiko Yamamoto, and Richard Edward Yé.
The elegant set by Wang is snazzy for the club dance scene that includes a huge red Fan for the “Fan” number. Props by Margaret Deng are clever including large Chopsticks, fortune cookie hats, fans, and of course, the iconic Flower Drum. The early 1960s costumes by Y Sharon Peng are especially dramatic for the dark opening number and wonderful use of colors for the company numbers. The lighting design by Pamila Grey was perfect for the classic club show numbers and the moody cookie factory. The beautiful Asian-infused music direction by Amanda Ku and her 12-piece orchestra keeps the chorus strong and dance numbers keen. The professionals Patrick Chew, Jon Wai-keung Lowe, and Kate Zhang in the wings to direct the Dialect, Chinese Opera and dance consultants.
Hwang has created something new while honoring the original material. The heart of the show was most clear in the opening and closing numbers, both sung by the company in the reprised song "A Hundred Million Miracles." For the finale, the entire cast is dressed in gorgeous mix of wedding clothes. Hwang’s most powerful revision is each cast member announces his or her origins of birth. In cities from around the planet, a cultural mix that was as moving and important as anything we are likely to feel during our dark Trump era. It was a moving reminder that countless immigrant miracles make up our collective history. Next up at PAP is the very funny ONE MAN TWO GUVNORS that opens this summer June 14th. Palo Alto Players has also announced their new 2019/20 Season that includes BRIGHT STAR this fall and MATILDA in April of 2020. But in the meantime take a must see trip to the CHOP SUEY club and “Grant Street” in the American Dream FLOWER DRUM SONG.
Palo Alto Players presents
FLOWER DRUM SONG
David Henry Hwang adaptation of the
Rodgers and Hammerstein Classic
Directed by Lily Tung Crystal
Musical Director Amanda Ku, Choreography by Alex Hsu,
Assistant director Vinh G. Nguyen,
MUST CLOSE May 12
Lucie Stern Theater,
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto Ca.
Running time two hours 30 minutes with one intermission
For information or tickets, visit paplayers.org or call 650.329.0891.
Photos by Joyce Goldschmid
THE CAST Emily Song, Bryan Pangilinan, Joey Alvarado, Jomar Martinez, Bryan Munar, Marah Sotelo, Melinda Meeng, John Paul Kilecdi-Li, Kevin Achas, Kristy Aquino, Duc T. Duong, Yoshi Humfeld, Miko Ison, Ruri Kodama, Karen Law, Justin Lopez, Vinh G. Nguyen, Masami Savage, Eiko Yamamoto, and Richard Edward Yé.
INTERVIEWS WITH CAST
CLIP FROM FLOWER DRUM SONG