Photo by Rich Ryan.
It was particularly poignant that Mu Performing Arts and Park Square Theatre chose this past weekend to open their co-production of the musical Flower Drum Song with its story of immigrants and their assimilation into American life. This updated version of the 1950s musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein tells the tale of Chinese citizens who fled the Communist regime in China and sought to make new lives in American. The original book for this musical had many of what are now recognized as offensive stereotypes, but this production is based upon a rewrite by playwright David Henry Hwang. The result has significant changes to the storyline and was first performed in Los Angeles in 2001; Hwang was in attendance at Friday’s opening. The result is a stunning revival of a classic musical under the direction of director Randy Reyes and musical director Andrew Fleser.
The story starts with Mei-Li (Stephanie Bertumen) fleeing Communist China following the death of her father. She comes by boat to San Francisco’s Chinatown to the Golden Pearl Theatre. The Chinese opera theatre is owned by Wang Chi-yang (Sherwin Resurreccion) who is a former dance student of Mei-Li’s father. Wang has a son named Ta (Wesley Mouri), whom he has disagreements with about the direction of his theatre. Ta runs a cabaret one night a week and wants to expand nights, while Wang wants to preserve the art of Chinese Opera…even if only six people attend the performances. Mei-Li is invited to stay in Wang’s home, where she comes to love Wang’s son Ta. Ta has an attraction to Mei-Li, but sees her as too traditional and prefers one of his cabaret stars, Linda Low (Meghan Kreidler), a Chinese-American stripper. Low, however, only dates white men and she has no interest in Ta.
Things change dramatically when Madame Liang (Katie Bradley) comes on the scene. Liang is Low’s agent but sees potential in the theatre and bankrolls an upgrade and renaming of the cabaret nightclub to Club Chop Suey. Wang reluctantly agrees to the change, but when he subs as a performer he is an instant hit. He becomes enamored with stardom and takes on the stage name of Sammy Wong. Events progress to the eventual happing endings of Liang and Wong becoming an item and Ta eventually choosing Mei-Li.
Bertumen and Mouri play an earnest couple who need to reconcile their very different views on what assimilation means for the Chinese in America. But the supporting characters basically steal the focus of the show. Resurreccion and Bradley have some of the best comic lines in the show and do a wonderfully endearing duet when they sing “Don’t Marry Me.” Meghan Kreidler’s scene-stealing abilities first came to my attention when she had a supporting role in Mu Performing Art’s production of A Little Night Music in 2014. In this production, she similarly becomes the center focus of any scene she is in with her charismatic performance. Her rendition of “I Enjoy Being a Girl” is a highlight of the show.
As with any Rogers and Hammerstein show, the musical score is one of the biggest stars. Other notable songs include the melodic “A Hundred Million Miracles” and “You are Beautiful.” Scenic Designer Mina Kinukawa provides a flexible set with the use of moving arches and other set pieces to effectively become a boat yard, a theatre, a night club, and a dressing room. Costume Designer Andrea M. Gross provides a rich array of traditional Chinese costumes as well as American styles that greatly contribute to the sense of color on stage.
The show’s ending was especially touching, with the all Asian-American cast members each sharing their birthplace, emphasizing the globalization of our world and the richness this diversity has brought to our country.
Flower Drum Song plays through Feb. 19 at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, MN.