Currently at Broadway's Virginia Theater, the "new" show, with all but one of its original songs intact, stars Lea Salonga backed up by a wonderful cast of singing actors and actresses. This is fortunate, since the strong stage presence that Salonga demonstrated as the Tony Award-winning star of "Miss Saigon" seems to have faded and her performance seems routine and even boring, though her soaring soprano is still intact.
Of course "Flower Drum Song" is second-class Rodgers & Hammerstein compared to such inspired works as "Oklahoma," "Carousel," "South Pacific" and "The Sound of Music." Rodgers wrote it as a novelty between weightier shows and always referred to it as an "accidental hit" that survived negative reviews. The 1961 film version proved overlong and tedious.
To lend authenticity to a work set in San Francisco's Chinatown, Rodgers used some of the oriental musical effects that served him well in the many-splendored "The King and I." The awkward book about cultural assimilation and generational struggles, written by Hammerstein with a little help from Joseph Fields, was the main obstacle to reviving "Flower Drum Song," although it has a pleasant enough score with such memorable numbers as "A Hundred Million Miracles" and the lovely lament, "Love, Look Away."
The story is a predictable one about the conflicts of Old World and New World Chinese based on a 1957 novel by C.Y. Lee about a timid Chinese mail-order bride, Mei-Li, promised in marriage to a San Francisco nightclub owner, Sammy Fong.
"There isn't a line left of the original book," said Wang, a playwright best known for "M. Butterfly," in an interview.
"I wanted to return to the original spirit of the Lee novel, which is more bittersweet than the Hammerstein-Fields book, which is mostly pretty sweet. So I have written a new story about how a traditional theater becomes a Western-style nightclub as a metaphor for assimilation and change and to make it more relevant to contemporary audiences."
In the rewrite, Mei-Li is a heroic boat woman who has fled Mao Zedong's dictatorship to look up Wang, an old friend of her father's now known as Sammy in San Francisco. Sammy heads a Chinese Opera company that has failed to attract an American audience, and his son, Ta, transforms Sammy's theater into nightclub with strip tease entertainment.
Ta loves a saucy stripper named Linda Low, but she doesn't love him and he gradually accepts the idea of Mei-Li as his true love. Sammy becomes a star of his son's nightclub show and is proposed to by a savvy, oft-divorced theatrical promoter, Madame Liang, who is as aggressive as she is attractive.
Wang's new book is disappointing in that it never convinces the audience that Ta has fallen out of love with the stripper and that Mei-Li is anything to him other than second choice. The final all-red double wedding scene is meant to celebrate the triumph of love, but there is a sour taste to Ta and Mei-Li's marriage all the same and a feeling that Sammy is destined to be Madame Liang's fifth ex-husband.
Randall Duk Kim as Sammy comes close to stealing the show. He transforms himself from a dour upholder of Chinese theatrical tradition to an antic, wisecracking song-and-dance man who emerges from a huge takeout food carton to deliver the show's show-stopping number, "Chop Suey." He is endearing, engaging, and over the top.
The boyishly handsome Joe Llana makes a perfect Ta, leaving no doubt as to why Mei-Li falls for him, and he delivers two solo numbers, "Sunday" and "Like a God" with authority and a serviceable tenor. Long-legged and gorgeous, Sandra Allen is a sensational Linda Low whose rendition of "I Enjoy Being a Girl" is enough to send any feminist into hissy fit, and Jodi Long turns in a solid performance as the take-over Madame Liang.
In minor roles, Alvan Ing is winning as an elderly "uncle" but not quite up to snuff vocally in the solo "My Best Love" (which was cut from the 1958 show), Allen Liu is sympathetic as a gay costume designer (not in the original show) who craves applause, and Hoon Lee tries hard as Mei-Li's fellow émigré and burly suitor but is too stolid to be sympathetic. The chorus of 13 dance and sing like the troupers they are -- as immigrants, opera cast members, nightclub performers, factory workers, and members of the wedding.
Robert Wagner's unit set, a lacquered temple-like façade with a flaring tile roofline, is transformed with movable screens and Natasha Katz's clever lighting into a theater, a nightclub, a fortune cookie factory, and a Buddhist temple. Gregg Barnes' costumes are an eyeful, especially the elaborate Chinese opera robes and the snappy fans and scanty garments designed for the big production number, "Fan Tan Fanny."
David Chase is responsible for the musical adaptation and director and choreographer Robert Longbottom has seen to it that everything moves with chopstick precision on Chinatown's Grant Avenue.