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Photograph by David M. Allen
VOWS IN RED: The wedding scene from 'Flower Drum Song' shows off the costumes in American Musical Theatre's latest production.

Chop Shticks

American Musical Theatre's 'Flower Drum Song' entertains in spite of updated stereotypes

By Ben Marks

THE ORIGINAL Flower Drum Song appeared on Broadway 50 years ago. The third in a series of Far East–focused productions by Rodgers and Hammerstein (South Pacific and The King and I being the other two), the musical focused on the life of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco's Chinatown during the middle of the last century. As you might expect, it was riddled with stereotypes, followed the boy-meets-girl-boy-loses-girl-boy-gets-girl-back formula to the letter and featured just enough T&A to hold the wavering attentions of the older male members of the audience, who were dragged to the then-exotic spectacle by their theatergoing wives.

The 2002 revival version of Flower Drum Song being performed by American Musical Theatre of San Jose is ostensibly different from the original described above, but it still mines essentially all of the same elements, and then some. There are more stereotypes (invoking Mel Brooks' famous rule of Broadway to "keep it gay," author David Henry Hwang of M. Butterfly fame has added a flaming costumer to the cast), more T&A (a gentleman in the row in front of me snored nonetheless) and the boy-meets/loses/gets-girl stuff is loudly telegraphed from the first scene between the two would-be love birds. Subtle this new Flower Drum Song is not.

So why, cynic and musical-theater grouch that I am, did I enjoy this production so much? I mean, the whole bit in the beginning, when our heroine, Mei-Li (Michelle Liu Coughlin) flees the oppression of passionless, monotone and no-drumming-allowed Communist China, feels like Cold War propaganda. Hwang wrote this nonsense? Likewise, the cultural reawakening of nightclub impresario Wang Ta (Paolo Montalban) is forced and artificial, as if Hwang scrubbed his script with political-correctness software before distributing it to the cast. Whatever. I had a ball. Go see this funny, spirited play before the end of its brief two-week run.

Don't go for the hokey script, which has more in common with the Borscht Belt than the Pacific Rim. Forget the plot, even, which doesn't go much beyond the short shrift I have already given it. The things about Flower Drum Song that grab you are the bell-ringing voices (Emily Hsu as Linda Low does "I Enjoy Being a Girl" complete justice), the clever staging and flexible set and, almost above all, the costumes, which are at times beyond inspired (let's just say that I'll never look at a Chinese take-out container the same way again).

The performances are uniformly terrific. In addition to the fine vocal skills and game melodramatics of principals Coughlin and Montalban, there are a number of wonderful scene stealers, not least Joseph Anthony Foronda, whose stern Wang Chi-Yang, keeper of traditional Chinese opera, transforms into smarmy, yet warm-hearted, Uncle Sammy, master of ceremonies and star of stars at the Club Chop Suey. His fast-talking counterpart, the brains behind the club, Madame Rita Liang (Erin Quill), is especially good, and their duet, "Don't Marry Me," is one of the show's high points. None of it is terribly substantial (as one actor jokes, it's rather like eating Chinese food), but man is it tasty.

FLOWER DRUM SONG plays Wednesday–Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2 and 8pm and Sunday at 1 and 6:30pm through Nov. 9 at San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose. Tickets are $20–$75. (888.455.7469)

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