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Star-Bulletin Features


Monday, February 25, 2002



art
GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STAR-BULLETIN.COM
Mei-Li (Stefanie Okuda), left, is the picture bride sent to marry club owner Sammy Fong, but Linda Low (Tricia Marciel), has already won Fong's heart, in Army Community Theater's production of "Flower Drum Song."



Same song, second chorus


'Flower Drum Song'
Presented by Army Community Theater
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays through March 16
Place: Richardson Theater, Fort Shafter
Cost: $12 to $15 for adults; $6 to $8 for children
Call: 438-4480



By Scott Vogel
svogel@starbulletin.com

Could this be "Flower Drum's" Swan Song? Don't worry, Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1958 saga of Chinese-American assimilation, seemingly revived on a weekly basis on Hawaii stages, isn't really going anywhere. The songs are simply too good, and besides, more than 40 years after its debut there's still a dearth of roles for Asian-American Broadway babies.

But thanks to a well-received revised version of "Flower" -- or rather, to be accurate, a thoroughly pruned and transplanted version -- this Chinatown chestnut may never be the same. And the botanical genius behind the latest production, which opened at L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum to solid reviews last October, is none other than playwright David Henry Hwang, who raised quite a few eyebrows when his "M. Butterfly" came to town a few years back. He may get that chance again, especially if the New York critics praise this new "Flower," scheduled to open on Broadway in the fall.

If so, you can expect a frenzied dash by regional theater companies to secure the rights to a local production, not to mention a great deal of discussion on Hwang's changes.

For now, Army Community Theater is sticking with the original "Flower Drum Song" script, which centers on the love triangle created when picture bride Mei-Li (played by Stefanie Okuda when the production opens Thursday) is shipped to San Francisco to marry Sammy Fong (Daren Kimura), a thoroughly California-ized Chinese-American nightclub owner.

Fong is, however, already in love with a hot number, Linda Low (as in class, presently played by Tricia Marciel), and thus the script's conflicts -- demure vs. sexy, old world vs. new -- are conspicuously set in motion.

"Many Asians of my generation have had a really ambivalent relationship with 'Flower Drum Song,'" Hwang told the Associated Press late last year. "On the one hand, the movie was something we grew up with and was probably our only representation of Asians on screen who acted like Americans. And on the other hand, some of us protested it in the 1970s and '80s as being too stereotypical and too quaint."

Hwang's "Flower," in consequence, is a studious attempt to remove some of the Asian clichés that were bound to creep into a musical fashioned by two old white guys, however culturally sensitive and theatrically brilliant their work. But in replacing the club-hopping Sammy Fong character with Ta, who's the son of a Peking opera master, Hwang seems also to have now embraced ambivalence of a different kind -- namely toward the rewards and dangers of cultural assimilation. Shifting the emphasis to a valiant stand against crass Americanism, Hwang's "Flower" may well find fertile soil in Hawaii.

"I can see why they would want to do an updated version for the second- and third-generation Chinese Americans who see things differently," said Okuda, who didn't see the L.A. version but likes the idea of it.

"When I took Asian-American history here we did talk about the movie, and it is stereotypical, but it's a cute love story. And usually any love story that's done in a musical is stereotypical, right?"

Marciel, whose character Linda is at least aggressively self-interested (which passes for female progress in R&H), doesn't have a problem with "Flower" as written either. Sure it's dated, said the singer of "I Enjoy Being a Girl," but not as dated as some women might think (or hope).

"When I saw some of the lyrics, I thought, 'Oh boy, do I really have to sing this? This is pretty silly,'" she said, referring to Linda's rhapsodic view of new hairdos and frilly dresses. "But some women do love feeling pretty in that respect," along with the corollary, "that the only way they're valued is in how men see them."

Perhaps that's why Hwang's new "Flower" reportedly retains all those retro lyrics, along with the love triangle that sat at the original's center. (Another possible reason is the Rodgers and Hammerstein's Organization, which normally demands complete fidelity to the original script as a condition for granting production rights.)

At its heart, the show remains a minor classic by two giants of the musical theater, but one that largely disappeared after its initial successful Broadway run.

Except here, of course.


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