KPBS AIRDATE: January 4, 1994 >
“Good, but not stupendous.” “Fine, but not sensational.” That’s pretty much the way critics greeted “Flower Drum Song,” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1958 entry to the Broadway musical theater scene. It’s a simple, romantic, and maybe even a trifle silly story about two generations of Chinese-Americans in San Francisco. It would seem hopelessly old-fashioned, except in the current context of “The Joy Luck Club,” which also confronts the differences between the generations, the highly traditional immigrant parents and their modern American offspring.
At the Lawrence Welk Theatre, director Frank Wayne has carefully selected an almost entirely Asian cast. His tradeoff for authenticity, however, seems to be professionalism. Everyone is very smiley, earnest and eager, but most appear uncomfortable onstage, talking too loudly or too softly, not knowing how to move or put over a song, not having the vocal volume — and sometimes, the vocal quality — to carry the sweet melodies. Most of the bios reflect considerable theater experience, but in most cases, it doesn’t show. There’s a real feeling of community theater here, or maybe even a college production, which is unfortunate, since the Welk is one of our few remaining, active Equity waiver theaters. But disclaimers aside, there is still much to enjoy about “Flower Drum Song.”
Kenny Eiland is a delight as Sammy Fong, the slimy nightclub owner who creates a lot of havoc but gets his girl in the end. Eiland is sharp, funny, and moves well. But the best dancer in the show is someone from the ensemble, who should be spotlighted more often: the nimble Kin Lam. As the delicate, imported lotus blossom, Mei Li, Sabrina Lu is delicate, graceful and sweet, though she always seems to be singing beneath her range. She pairs off nicely with Glenn Shiroma as Wang Ta, the Americanized guy who’s more traditional than he knows. Arlene Allan looks and moves all right for the scintillating stripper, Linda Low, but her costumes are close to frumpy when they should be oozing sex.
The 3-piece musical accompaniment is lively, especially in percussion, but the singing and dancing are very variable. The big chorus numbers, “Chop Suey” and “Grant Avenue,” are colorful and spirited, but in the solos and duets, there’s a lot of stock-still standing, except when Sammy Fong and Linda Low are involved. Although the show generally holds up to the magnifying glass of political correctness, Low’s should-be-a-show-stopper solo, “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” will make feminists cringe. “The main thing,” she tells us early on, “is for a girl to be successful at her gender.” As that other song goes, “Love, look away…”
If, like a bird-watcher, you’re keeping track of all the classic musicals you’ve seen — especially recently, when they’re all being recycled — you might want to add “Flower Drum Song” to your bird-book. There are several numbers here that really take flight.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.