A Fantastic Production
  By Iride Aparicio

Photos Credit: Joyce Goldshmid
Emily Song in the role of Mei Li in Flower Drum song
Emily Song in the role of Mei Li in FLOWER DRUM SONG

PALO ALTO, CA - Maybe the noun "flower" in "FLOWER DRUM SONG" (a name given to a song accompanied by the beat of a drum) the new musical that is being presented by PALO ALTO PLAYERS at the Lucie Stern Theater in Palo Alto, is a metaphor describing Mei Li, t the lovely, fragile, courageous orphan from Pekin, who arrives in San Francisco, California to consummate a marriage contract that her father signed with a boy's father, in China, many years ago. We don't know. All we know is that even when the story is about old Chinese traditions and the musical is performed by an all Asian cast, this musical is about families. where the parents, now living in the United States, were born and raised in another country, and their children are born in the U.S.A. So, this musical tells a universal story about the " generations gap" the loss of identity, traditions, the acquisition of a new language, and, above all, the need for understanding in all sides.

And FLOWER DRUM SONG is also the story of humanity: Survival, courage, fear, rejection, misunderstandings and love. All the immigrants who, at some time in the past, arrived in the United States of America, could easily identify with the character of Mei Li, ( EMILY SONG). We love her the moment we see her, for the first time, standing at the center of the stage clad in Chinese silk attire. She looks so small and fragile that our first instinct is to wrap our arms around her to protect her. She talks, in a soft voice, and refuses to look at us. Obviously, she is scared, and she should be scared. She saw her father being killed in Pekin, and now she is completely alone in the world. So, she joined a boat of fleeing Chinese refugees and arrived in San Francisco's China Town holding a drum, her only material possession. All immigrants living here could easily identify with her. Like Mei Li. One day, they came to America, from all over the world, but not carrying a drum in their hands, what they carry, in their hearts, was a dream for a better life.

The principal characters in the musical are: Mei Li (EMILY SONG) who has illegally enter the United States from Peking via Hong Kong escaping from China. where her father had been murdered. She has come to San Francisco to marry Ta Wong, the son of Chi -Yang Wang (BRYAN PANGILINAN) a Chinese widower who is the owner of THE CELESTIAL GARDENDS a night club in China Town in San Francisco. Ta Wang (JOMAR MARTINEZ) is his older one, who is about to graduate for college and is going into Law school. His younger son is Chin (BRYAN MUNAR) who because he was born in S.F. is more American than Chinese. He loves baseball and his favorite music is Rock 'n' Roll. Because of their generation gap between father and sons fight constantly. The lead dancer at THE CELESTIAL GARDENS is stripper Linda Law (MARAH SOTELO) a thoroughly Americanized Chinese girl that Ta has just met as a blind date. Linda wants to become a star, and sees in Ta, a good catch because his father is rich. There is also Madame Liang (MELINDA MEENG) who is Shi Yang Wang's sister in law, and Helen Chao (JOHN PAULO KILECDI-LI) A seamstress friend of the Wangs, who is secretly in love with Ta.

L-R  front row Linda, Madame Liang, Wang, C.Y. Lee,  and Cast.

L-R front row Linda, Madame Liang, Wang, Harvard and Cast.

The conflict in the musical starts on the first scene, with  Mei Li arrival in San Francisco in 1949, with nothing but a drum strapped to her body, that she beats as she sings "A hundred million miracles are happening every day, and those who say they don't agree, are those who do not hear or see."  As the story progresses, the audience will many miracles.

The PALO ALTO PLAYERS's production of  "FLOWER DRUM SONG"  with music by RICHARD RODGERS, Lyrics by OSCAR HAMERSTEIN II, and JOSEPH FIELDS,  and book by playwright DAVID HENRY HWANG  is different than the  the original l957 musical with book by HAMMERSTEIN II.  While the characters in this version are basically the same, the situations are different, and their dialogue is different. The dances are the Cabaret more risque than those from the original, and those with SOTELO and PANGILINAN, as leads need to be seen.


Palo Alto Players Dancers  from the production of "FLOWER DRUM SONG

But HWANG's book for FLOWER DRUM SONG, like the book for the original musical, was based on the novel by the same name, written by  C.Y. Lee, in which he relates the story of  S.F. Chinese generations in conflict during l957.  When he first published, however, the novel was  faulted by the New York Times for its lack of depth, and its affinity to "American Slang and sex." When interviewed, Lee told the writers, that he agreed with them, but that the reason why he had written his novel the way he wrote it was because  he wanted to reach a wider audience. He did. He attracted the attention of JOSEPH FIELD and composers RICHARD RODGERS and OSCAR HAMMERSTEIN II, who wrote the music and lyrics and his novel was transformed to  "FLOWER DRUM SONG, a musical, directed by GENE KELLY  that debuted  in Broadway in l958 and remained there for two years.

As a musical, "FLOWER DRUM SONG"  was called "A showcase for crude stereotypes of the Chinese people", by some N.Y. critics,and praised by others who considered the production a Historical ground-breaking because it was based on the experiences of  the Chinese-Americans in the United States.

 In l961, the film version of the musical was one among  the first Hollywood productions to feature an all Asian cast. The film received five Academy Award nominations. In 2002, "FLOWER DRUM SONG" was revived on Broadway, but with a new book  written by playwright DAVID HENRY HWANG. This is the version that PALO ALTO PLAYERS are presenting, Directed by LILY TUNG CRYSTAL with additional Orchestration and Arrangements by TERRY HALVORSON.  


SOTELO's  (center) and cast from  "Fan Tan Fannie"

Comparing the two versions of the show, we have to admit that HWANG book version is better. The story has more realism, the characters are less stereotypical and the plot is more dramatic.

Because the music (HAMMERSTEIN  II) is the same in both versions, the audience has a chance to hear  (in the additional orchestration and arrangements by TERRY HALVORSON)  "Love, Look Away", "Grant Avenue," and I Enjoy Being a Girl," among others, masterfully interpreted by the keyboard and musicians and beautifully sang in the wonderful voices of the actors. Directed by LILY TUNG CRYSTAL. At the end, we concluded that  hundred million miracles may have happened in the opening night of PALO ALTO PLAYERS's  FLOWER DRUM SONG because the show was seamless, with every one of the actors demonstrating to the audience his or her "star quality." The show was fantastic.  

FLOWER DRUM SONG will play at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road in Palo Alto, CA from now through May 12, 2019. For information and tickets you can call 650-329-0891.