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THEATER REVIEW: Liking “Flower Drum Song: A Musical Revival In Concert”

American musical comedy writing juggernaut Rodgers and Hammerstein, smarting after two straight Broadway flops, looked to the 1958 “Flower Drum Song” to revive their reputation.

It worked. But though the original version (based on C.Y. Lee’s novel) ran for a year and a half and received six Tony nominations, the script was rife with stereotypes that wouldn’t pass muster today.

In 2002, playwright David Henry Hwang (of “M. Butterfly” fame) rewrote the book of the show and the new version hit Broadway that year. Hwang was nominated for a Tony.

Later, he rewrote the book again into the 90-minute “Flower Drum Song: A Musical Revival In Concert.” San Diego Asian American Repertory Theatre presents this version through July 12 at the Theodore and Adele Shank Theatre in the La Jolla Playhouse complex. This is the second and final show to be presented as part of SDAART’s residence at La Jolla Playhouse.

The plot revolves around young Chinese immigrant Mei Li (Mindy Ella Chu), sent by her father to San Francisco (to save her from his fate when he is arrested by the Red Guards) and the culture shock she undergoes when she encounters the freer, more boisterous lifestyle of Asian Americans in the city by the bay.

Mei Li goes to a (sparsely attended) performance of Chinese opera in San Francisco, where she meets her father’s friend, impresario Wang Chi Yang (Albert Park).

She also meets and falls for his completely westernized son Ta (David Armstrong), who is keeping his father in business by converting the space to a very western nightclub on Friday nights. “Club Chop Suey” offers lots of drinks and a brassy stripper named Linda Low (Tiffany Loui). Friday nights rock, much to Wang’s horror.

But one must stay in business, so Chinese opera moves to Friday and Club Chop Suey rules the rest of the week, thanks in no small part to Mme. Liang (SDAART board chair Elise Kim Prosser), who is not shy about expressing her ideas about how to make the club a success (a character not unlike Prosser herself, I am told).

It’s a simple east-meets-west plot with a triangle romance: Mei Li likes Ta. Ta likes Linda. Linda likes Linda.

The show is tuneful, anchored by Mei Li’s “A Hundred Million Miracles” and including Linda’s brassy “Fan Tan Fannie” and her signature “I Enjoy Being A Girl.”

Chu is convincing as the somewhat lost Mei Li (though she could stand to project her voice a bit more, even though the character is tentative). Loui makes a fine contrast with Chu, and is also a good dancer. Armstrong’s Ta is fine as the westernized son.

Park and Prosser make a good comic pair, especially in their “Don’t Marry Me” number.

Cirino’s direction moves and lets the show breathe, the costumes (by Caroline Rousset-Johnson) are great, and so is Gina Ma’s choreography.

A good score, fine acting and directing – what’s not to like? I found myself singing along (silently) with Mei Li “I am going to like it here.”

You will too.

The details

San Diego Asian American Repertory Theatre’s production of “Flower Drum Song: A Musical Revival in Concert” plays through June 12 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Theodore and Adele Shank Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive on the UCSD campus.

Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

For tickets, call (619) 940-5891 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.