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Lea Salonga in Flower Drum Song
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
The original, 1958 production of Flower Drum Song was concerned thematically with respect for tradition. Yet, someone watching the new, improved (?) version now on Broadway might wonder what manner of respect for tradition was in the minds of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization administrators when they took the Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein II-Joseph Fields show and turned it over to David Henry Hwang for a libretto overhaul.

Since the firm is in business to perpetuate the formidable R&H legacy, they must have had Dick and Oscar's interests at heart. Also, Flower Drum Song, which was a modest success the first time around (600 Broadway performances and a healthy road tour), is hardly sacrosanct. Its depiction of the Chinese immigrant experience as adapted from C.Y. Lee's novel of almost the same title (there's a "The" in Lee's title), was simplistic and even patronizing. It often seemed to be asking, 'Aren't these little folks quaint?' Kenneth Tynan ended his brush-off of the show in The New Yorker by jibing: "Perhaps as a riposte to Joshua Logan's The World of Susie Wong, Rodgers and Hammerstein have given us what, if I had any self-control at all, I would refrain from describing as a world of woozy song."

Unable to resist that spoonerism, Tynan underrates the songs in question. While some of them possess a certain wooze factor by dint of abashed rhyming couplets and coy repetitions of phrases, others rank with the best of R&H; they're beautiful, funny, touching, vivacious. The score boasts "I Enjoy Being a Girl" -- which is now thought to be non-P.C., of course. Other standouts are the dainty "A Hundred Million Miracles," the gorgeous "Love, Look Away" (which has one of waltz-king Rodgers's best 4/4 melodies), and the perky "Grant Avenue" and "Chop Suey." This is not to mention the irresistible "Sunday," in which Hammerstein celebrates the joy of a day off.

In the Hammerstein-Fields book, the songs are delivered by characters who, for all their drawbacks, remain appealing while being unsure about the tricky process of assimilation. In the original, Mei-Li is a mail-order bride intended for one man but attracted to another. Hammerstein specialized in depicting naifs: Nellie Forbush in South Pacific is one and another is Anna Leonowens in The King and I. Both are trying to adjust, as are Mei-Li and others in Flower Drum Song, to an alien culture and are having big troubles in doing so.

Hammerstein was a master of integrating story with song; indeed, the venerable playwright-lyricist was a prime shaper of this form of musical theater. Yet it must have been in the belief that there was ample room for improvement on Hammerstein and Fields that the R&H people agreed to give playwright Hwang the chance to upgrade this work. Many people would allow that Hwang has the credentials for the assignment -- that he's the right candidate to create, as he's stated, "the musical Oscar Hammerstein would have written had he been an Asian-American." As a dramatist, Hwang has already proved himself on the subjects of tradition, change, and assimilation, most notably in Golden Child, wherein an immigrant flashes back at length on his ancestors' clashing attitudes toward trading old customs for new.

Sandra Allen enjoys being a girl
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
However, Hwang's "revisal" is a mixed blessing. ("Revisal" is the term lately applied to revamped versions of old musicals.) Another way of phrasing this disappointment would be to say that a hundred million miracles have not materialized. The handful that have include the return of the Rodgers-Hammerstein tunes, or most of them -- one number ("The Other Generation") has been dropped, while one previously excised ("My Best Love") has been restored. The songs retain their verve, particularly as director-choreographer Robert Longbottom and costume designer Gregg Barnes have presented them. The biggest hand goes deservedly to "Fan Tan Fannie," staged as a terrific nightclub turn. (Barnes's wardrobe sparkles, whether he's dealing with intricate ensembles for supposedly Chinese operas or with skimpy showbiz outfits for what, in the '40s and '50s, was called the Chop Suey circuit.)

Hwang's new libretto is another matter. His new plot has Mei-Li (nicely played by Lea Salonga) arriving in San Francisco in 1960 with her flower drum as a fugitive from communist China. The girl has an introduction to Wang (the strong Randall Duk Kim), a friend of her late father, who is trying to keep Chinese opera alive and viable in his adopted land. His son, Ta (José Llana, singing and acting lustily), is trying to Americanize the family's theater, The Golden Pearl, by presenting hip, brassy revues on certain nights. At the same time, Ta is trying to get featured performer Linda Low (the commanding Sandra Allen), to respond to his romantic overtures. Mei-Li falls almost immediately for Ta but it takes him most of the show for the object of her affection to decide whether he's going to reciprocate.

Though Wang has trouble accepting (at first) that Chinese opera is finished, Ta -- helped by the practical Madame Liang (the funny Jodi Long) -- turnings his own entertainment ideas into the sound of "ka-ching." Hwang may think he's come up with a show-within-a-show metaphor for the problem of cultures colliding and, to some extent he has. But what he's really concocted within the confines of Robin Wagner's adaptable set is a thin, uninvolving narrative that seems no more advanced in 2002 than did the Hammerstein-Fields treatment in 1958. In fact, it's probably worse, since the original version of the show at least boasted characters who behaved with consistency.

José Llana and Lea Salonga
in Flower Drum Song
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Hwang's don't. Mei-Li, after enduring great difficulties in her escape from mainland China, seems to have little spunk when she lands. That behavior is understandable in the timid mail-order bride of the earlier outing; it isn't in someone who, it's implied, is an activist. And Ta, in his disdain for his father and his stubborn wooing of a disinterested Linda, is largely unsympathetic. His second-act change-of-heart seems too late and not entirely motivated; because of this, two songs sung by Mei-Li and Ta -- respectively, "Love, Look Away" and "Like a God" -- come at awkward moments and carry less dramatic weight than they did in the original. (The former used to be sung by a character that has been cut entirely from the revisal). This is a lapse that Hammerstein would not have allowed.

The problems noted above raise questions about the workability of revisals wherein new plots have to accommodate songs painstakingly engineered to fit different situations. More specifically, the revised Flower Drum Song raises questions about what is happening at the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization. Twice in as many months during this, Rodgers's centenary year, we have seen off-kilter makeovers of the composer's catalog items. (The lackluster Boys From Syracuse, which Rodgers wrote with Lorenz Hart, is the other affront.) As Wang now says in FDS after he's transformed himself from opera advocate to nightclub top banana: "If our ancestors could see us now, I'll bet they would just die!" Might the same not be said about the famously fastidious Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II?

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