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songs such as “Love, Look Away” and “I Enjoy Being a Girl”, but it's seldom produced, largely because it's regarded as out-of-date, and even racist.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.