Ambitious Flower Drum Song boasts talent but lacks polish

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      Music by Richard Rodgers. Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joseph Fields. Based on the novel by C.Y. Lee. Directed by Rick Tae. A Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre production. At the Waterfront Theatre on Thursday, May 28. Continues until June 14

      There's tons of ambition in Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre's production of Flower Drum Song, and a fair bit of talent, but the show could be better polished.

      This musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II features memorable songs such as “Love, Look Away” and “I Enjoy Being a Girl”, but it's seldom produced, largely because it's regarded as out-of-date, and even racist. The story is set in San Francisco in the '50s. Mei Li, the 19-year-old Chinese picture bride at the centre of the tale, can be seen as a submissive stereotype, and the dialogue makes a lot of self-conscious references to brocade and egg rolls. The largely Asian Canadian audience I saw this VACT production with at a preview performance seemed more amused than offended, however.

      At its heart, Flower Drum Song is a poignant—though slight—story about older and younger generations struggling to straddle disparate cultures. Wang Ta's father wants him to marry the demure Mei, but Wang is smitten with gold-digging showgirl Linda Low, who is better suited to playboy Sammy Fong.

      Even slight musicals are difficult to produce, though, and VACT doesn't entirely succeed with this one.

      There are some charming performances. Rosie Simon finds Mei's strength as well as her innocence, and her singing voice is warm and sure. Former Vancouver city councillor B.C. Lee makes Wang's father an amusingly blustering patriarch. Jimmy Yi (Fong) is witty and ebullient in “Don't Marry Me” and he's got one of the strongest voices in the cast. Playing the humble Helen Chao, who is haplessly in love with Wang, Joy Castro makes the most of “Love, Look Away”, the evening's loveliest melody.

      The show doesn't look great, though. The lesson here is: do a show you can afford. Either pony up and produce a full spectacle, or create a consistently minimalist and witty aesthetic.

      For the most part, Raphael Wong's choreography is an assemblage of awkward and illustrative movements. Director Rick Tae's blocking is often dull; he consistently puts the featured performer downstage centre. And it's sometimes busy; actors move the set pieces around altogether too much.

      Other producers of amateur musicals, including Royal City Musical Theatre and Theatre Under the Stars, flourish when they hire the town's top professionals for key artistic jobs. VACT could learn from them.




      May 30, 2009 at 9:58pm

      It's unfortunate to hear that this musical is being compared to Royal City Musical Theatre and Theatre Under the Stars, considering both have their own theatres and have larger budgets than VACT. I went to see Flower Drum Song last night and they were spectacular for reviving a 1950s politically incorrect musical. For a production at the Waterfront, I particularly loved how they recreated the orchestra as a backdrop of San Francisco. Kudos VACT!


      Jun 1, 2009 at 9:38am

      Neither RCMT *nor* TUTS owns their own theatre. Yes - they both have theatres that they use, but they have to pay rentals on both - so to say that they "have their own theatres" is incorrect.
      Also - VACT obviously has the $ to hire Equity director Rick Tae - so their budget cannot be miniscule.


      Jun 3, 2009 at 8:35am

      VACT recently celebrateted their 10 year anniversary, but they're still producing amateur performances. I agree with the reporter on this one - they have enough clout to do better in their sophomore years.


      Jun 15, 2009 at 12:13am

      Actually, Joey, Cheryl and Colin Thomas are all wrong. It has NOTHING to do with companies and their own venues. It is all about budgets. Even the Arts Club (the city's largest company) must do the best they can do with the budget money available, and they do have their own venues. Also, the Waterfront Theatre is TINY onstage. I would love to see Mr. Thomas (obviously all knowledgeable about everything theatre) design and install a set in that theatre that would work better. Sure, it could have been better...but considering they are not an equity company, I thought they did an admirable job. It doesn't help knocking down everyone unless your ambition in life is to completely destroy performing arts. How about some productive criticism...or even better...DONATE SOME CASH to help make the productions better!! My two cents.

      Colin Thomas GS

      Jun 18, 2009 at 8:59pm

      Walter, it's Colin Thomas checking in here.

      Do you really think that critics should only criticize things that we could do better? We’d all have to be VERY talented multidisciplinary artists to do our jobs. And do you truly believe that, instead of discussing what works and what doesn't in any given production, that we should give money to the shows that are failing? We’d quickly go bankrupt. More importantly, there wouldn’t be any meaningful discussion about theatre.

      As I see it, a big part of my job as a critic is to help to elevate the level of theatrical practice by celebrating successes and pointing out shortcomings. Acknowledging shortcomings is an important part of improvement. False praise helps no one.

      I agree that it's hard to create a successful set on a limited budget, but it can be done. I've seen excellent sets that were created on minimal budgets. An entire set made out of corrugated cardboard is a particularly memorable example. And you don’t necessarily have to stage a show like Flower Drum Song with realistic sets and costumes.

      If an out-of-the-box creative solution can’t be found, the other option is for companies to do straightforward interpretations of smaller shows that are better suited to their financial resources.

      And, just so that this discussion doesn’t get too off-track, let me remind you that there were a lot of things about VACT’s production of Flower Drum Song that I liked.