For Asian-American theater troupe Mu Performing Arts, the revival of “Flower Drum Song” that previews Friday in St. Paul marks a milestone.
The 1958 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, with an updated book by Tony-winning playwright David Henry Hwang, is the signal production in Mu’s 25th anniversary season. Its $200,000 budget also is Mu’s biggest ever — more than twice the cost of the biggest shows it has done.
The company’s artistic director, Randy Reyes, acted in Mu’s 2009 staging of this show, and now is directing this one.
“As we were planning our 25th season, we wanted to bring back something from the repertory,” Reyes said. “When we did it in 2009, it was a very strong production by [Mu co-founder] Rick Shiomi, but it opened on Fourth of July weekend, so we didn’t get much of an audience.
“This is a re-envisioning of the staging, made possible because it’s a coproduction with Park Square, so the budget is big. I don’t want to denigrate the magic that we do as a theater, but this show is special because we’ve had the resources to fully realize our vision.”
Before a rehearsal last week, Reyes talked about the tensions — and the jubilation — in this landmark production.
With the blessing of the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate, Hwang kept their music but rewrote the story for a reboot of “Flower Drum Song” that played Broadway in 2002.
“The old story was terrible and full of lazy stereotypes,” said Reyes. “What David has done is set the show in 1950s Chinatown in San Francisco at a nightclub owned by a Chinese-American family. As the older generation struggles with the newer generation, as the world of the Peking Opera gives way to the world of the nightclub, we see the full struggle of what it means to be Asian in America, to be Asian-American — what is lost, what is gained.
“The story that David created for his adaptation is the story of Mu, in terms of an Asian-American company trying to find its identity. We have deep affinity for this show because the tensions that the characters deal with are ones that we face, including the idea of holding on to traditional Asian culture or assimilating. What does that look like in terms of art? Also, there’s the tension between generations, as older people try to hold on to tradition while the young people become more American.”
On the political climate
“All the stuff roiled up by the election makes everything feel more urgent, more important. The same questions being asked in the ’50s are just as relevant today as we talk about us as immigrants, what it takes to move here to this country and how to survive.”
What’s different about this production eight years on
“It feels like we’re witnessing the emergence of another generation of Asian-American actors in the Twin Cities. In the last production, Sherwin Resurreccion played the son and I played his father. Now Sherwin is playing the father and Wesley Mouri, who was in “South Pacific” at the Guthrie as an ensemble member, is playing the son. We’ve come this far where a younger group of talent is bursting out in the Twin Cities.”
Things that remain problematic
“When you’re doing a show about the late 1950s, there’s bound to be a lot of misogyny. That’s especially true in a nightclub setting where women are stripping. We don’t strip in our production but there’s a particular number, ‘Gliding Through My Memory,’ where a vagabond sailor talks about all his conquests in all the different countries. My sister Stephanie [Bertumen] was in the last production with me when I played the dad and that scene always made me uncomfortable. For this production, I’ve put the men in drag and have the women play the sailors. It’s not a perfect answer but it sets off some of the misogyny.”
On the work’s importance
“This was first a book about Asian-Americans [C.Y. Lee’s 1957 novel ‘Flower Drum Song’], which didn’t exist at the time. There were stories about Asians and about Americans, but not anything yoking the two. A year after the book came the Broadway show, then a movie in 1961. In terms of the history and the importance, it’s profound. Our company is all about telling stories from the Asian-American experience.
“And if you think about films about Asian-Americans, there’s not that many. We have to wait till 1989 when Amy Tan comes out with [the novel] ‘The Joy Luck Club,’ which gets turned into a film in 1993. Wait again until 2002 for Justin Lin’s ‘Better Luck Tomorrow.’ On TV, it was 21 years between Margaret Cho’s ‘All-American Girl’ (1994) and [the current sitcom] ‘Fresh off the Boat.’ ”
All that said ...
“It’s highly entertaining. The music, as everyone knows, is great. When you mix the vaudeville influences with nightclub and Peking Opera, plus a complicated love story, you get a lot of heart and soul. Plus, it’s being done with great talent. We have 17 members of the cast, all Asian-American. And they’re having fun.”
“I get ’em, yes. When I see 17 Asian-Americans onstage and hear their incredible voices, I tear up. This is a modern-day cast with people who are mixed-race Asian, who are Korean or Filipino or Hmong. The fact that such diversity exists on that stage with their level of skill — forget about it. I’m a crying mess. But this is the harvest of what Mu has done for 25 years. So, it’s not just a production but a celebration.”