Flower Drum Song (Revised Version)
2014-09-07, 2:56 p.m.
recently on Chaos Attraction
So for most years of my life, we've had season tickets to Woodminster. The third and last show for the year was Flower Drum Song. I had previously seen this show before in (according to their website) 1993. (They also did it in 2004, but that was during the years when my dad was too handicapped to go to the theater and we didn't have season tickets any more, until he died.) I don't remember much about it, but I was not terribly impressed.
Here's what I remember about the 1993 version:
I did not think it was very good. So when I heard they were bringing it back this year, I was...not super psyched. More like thinking, "um, why? It was kinda dumb the first time."
Here's what I didn't know: some years after that, David Henry Hwang got permission to write an entirely new script for the show. He had to keep the songs the same, but he did some rearranging of how they were used. And the newer script was the one they performed last night. (Wikipedia has the entire history of this story. Read up.)
IT WAS REALLY GOOD. I'm not kidding. Apparently in the history of the show it was a hit in LA but not in NYC, which I think is a shame. I'm not really getting why it had bad reviews because hoo boy, the plot is soooooooooooo much better than the stinker it was before.
In this version: after her father dies in prison, Mei Li takes the boat to San Francisco, where she gets adopted (more or less) by her dad's best friend from opera school. That guy has been putting on Chinese opera to empty houses. Meanwhile, his son Ta is really tired of being forced to play the woman's role in the opera and talks his dad into hiring Mei Li to do it. Ta has his own thing going on--one night a week he is turning the theater into a nightclub, with his star singer Linda Low. Ta has a whopping crush on Linda, but she makes it clear that she only loves him like a brother. Mei Li gets a crush on Ta--and to some degree he sure does seem to start liking her back. Mei Li and Linda meet--Ta suggests that Linda can explain the concept of "dating" to Mei Li--and Linda gets the bright idea to fix them up and gives Mei Li a makeover. This doesn't quite work--Ta is disappointed/ticked off and is a bit insulting of Mei Li--so Mei Li quits the theater and stomps off to get a job at a Chinese fortune cookie company with Chow, a guy she came over on the boat with that has a crush on her.
Back to the theater plot: Linda gets an agent, Madame Liang, who revamps the theater into a nightclub show all the time that mixes Chinese and American--"Club Chop Suey." It's a whopping hit and the mayor and town bigwigs start showing up. And at heart, Ta's dad is an actor who's been without an audience for ages.... and eventually he decides he wants to be in the show. And despite it being hammy as hell, he is totally happy and in love with performing again and delighted with his son. Which seems like quite a switch, but I bought it because well, the dude's an actor starving for attention. Dad pretty much takes over the show, changes his stage name to "Uncle Sammy Fong" (note: a character in the original, hah), and falls in love with the tough and smart Madame Liang, who he seems quite suited for and vice versa. They have a duet called "Don't Marry Me" that is totally adorable.
I should probably point out here that the numbers and especially the cheesy, skimpy, light-up costumes, are deliberately over the top. To the point where Ta starts having reservations and saying, "Isn't this kind of turning into an Oriental minstrel show?" Well....I'm not gonna lie, it is. So Ta starts getting back into Chinese opera again--playing the male lead role. And I have to say that I was excited at the idea that the father and son switch roles in the way that they do--since when do you see that plot with Asian folks? Ta eventually finds out where Mei Li went (dude is not a detective, apparently, and had to be told by a family friend) and apologizes, but she's decided to go off with Chow to Hong Kong, because he isn't liking America so much. (The show takes some time out to acknowledge that not everybody likes it here.) After Ta leaves, Chow talks Mei Li into selling her dad's flower drum to finance the trip.
The ladies in the show decide to move on. Since Linda's starring role at the theater has been taken over by "Uncle Sammy," she decides she's going to go to Hollywood. Ta tries to pitch woo at her, and they have an argument about how they're too alike to be suited to each other in the end. Ta considers going to Hollywood with her since his show has been taken over and he's not feeling it so much, and Linda is all, "If you go, you're not my responsibility and you're going on your own recognizance. I'm leaving at 7 a.m." However, Ta sees Mei Li's flower drum in a pawn shop. The bus left at seven, the pawn shop didn't open until 10....he stayed to buy her her drum back and give it to her before she leaves. AWWW SO SWEET. After that, Mei Li bails on Hong Kong--also she is just not into Chow's kissing. She and Ta reunite, agree to date, and pray to her dad to tell him the situation.
I need to point out that this production ended in an interesting way: all of the actors onstage introduced themselves and said where they were born and what heritage they had. This came off as incredibly touching and cool and was really a moment for the audience. I loved it. At this point, I need to point something out: this theater company is run by a family, and one of the family members, Todd, is in the ensemble and occasionally plays a secondary role in every show. (This was his 96th!) Todd's um, not Asian, which perhaps led to an interesting casting conundrum? He's in the show anyway, primarily dancing in the opera scenes. I couldn't help but choke at a line early on in which the dad is grumbling about fake Chinese people while Todd's right there. Anyway, it was also amusing during the finale when Todd said he was "Irish-Czechoslovakian."
I enjoy Woodminster shows, but this one was really something special. I loved the rewrite, I thought the show had a lot more depth and funny and thought put into it this time. The songs worked well in new contexts, the acting by the leads was good, and I really enjoyed it. If you're in the area next weekend, I'd highly recommend checking it out--or if they ever put the new version on where you are, check that out. It was really cool.