What a time for an immigrant’s story. Although it calls from another era, “Flower Drum Song” sings in a timeless voice of the aspirants who crave America’s promise yet fear the assimilation that subsumes their cultural identity or relegates it to the fringes.
The gentle, flawed relic of the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon retains its earnest soul and admittedly clichéd charm in a coproduction by Mu Performing Arts and Park Square Theatre that opened Friday.
Playwright David Henry Hwang rewrote the book of this play about the Chinese community in 1950s San Francisco, and Mu staged the new version in 2009. Hwang softened and sharpened the cultural stereotypes of Chinatown, adding integrity to a story about the immigrant spirit’s push and pull toward America.
Stephanie Bertumen plays Mei-Li, who steps from the pier to the shabby theater of old family friend Master Wang (Sherwin Resurreccion). Wang stubbornly maintains the tradition of Peking opera to empty houses, while his son Ta (Wesley Mouri) fills the place once a week with splashy striptease shows. The star of those burlesques is Linda Low (Meghan Kreidler), a leggy collection of charisma and talent who dreams of Hollywood.
Wang, encouraged by brassy talent agent Madame Liang (Katie Bradley), finally surrenders to the kitsch his son is peddling and the old ham becomes an overnight sensation with white audiences eager for the “minstrel show” of Chinese customs (“Chop Suey” and “Fan Tan Fannie”).
The plot lumbers along, much like so many Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, but the appeal of this staging by Mu’s artistic director, Randy Reyes, rests in its actors and a band led by Andrew Fleser. Remember Kreidler’s name. She seizes the stage as Linda, with presence and a personality that is edgy and big. Even if her singing voice isn’t first-rate, she can sell.
If Resurreccion has ever given a poor performance, I have not seen it. He manages gravity and humor in the same instant, giving himself to the character of Wang, yet always with sly understatement. He and Bradley — who relishes the cocksure, large contours of Madame Liang — manage a second-act highlight with “Don’t Marry Me.”
Bertumen is less memorable as Mei-Li, though by no means insufficient. Broad-shouldered Mouri is handsome and conflicted as Ta, the son who struggles against his Chinese identity.
The music is instantly recognizable with Rodgers’ melodic phrases in “A Hundred Million Miracles,” “I Enjoy Being a Girl” and the irresistible production number “Grant Avenue.”
Penelope Freeh’s choreography is workmanlike, and Reyes might have considered viewing some of his scenes from the edges of the theater and then rearranging his actors on occasion. But he clearly has his eye on the heart of this story, and that’s a lot.
Graydon Royce is a longtime Star Tribune theater critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.