Director Lily Tung Launches Stellar Ensemble
by Cynthia K. Lopez
Regardless of your time in America, there’s always that funny balancing act between your ethnic background and “fitting in” with the mainstream. In “Flower Drum Song,” Mei Li says it best when she compliments Ta: “Sometimes you seem 100 percent Chinese. Then a moment later, you become 100 percent American…I think you are 100 percent both.”
The updated book by Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang reflects our time. Palo Alto Players astounding actors and Director Lily Tung Crystal enthrall us with Rogers and Hammerstein’s 1958 classic musical.
This new interpretation offers an achingly authentic tale of the immigrant experience to the U.S.—beautifully told with humor and sensitivity.
Fleeing communist China after the murder of her father, young Mei-Li arrives in San Francisco and finds a job in family friend, Wang’s, failing Chinese opera theater. But on Friday’s his enterprising son, Ta, transforms the dusty old place on Grant Avenue into a swinging nightclub.
Emily Song, the astonishingly talented high school senior who plays Mei-Li, shows skills beyond her years. We’re in awe from the show opener when, under a single spotlight wearing faded blue workers’ denims, she awakens us with “A Hundred Million Miracles.” Song is convincing as the innocent, hopeful immigrant looking for a better life.
Ta (enthusiastic Jomar Martinez) is caught between two cultures, respect for his father’s traditional Chinese theater and the 50’s dance and music scene.
The flirtatious Linda Low (captivating Marah Sotelo), star of the Friday night shows, dates only white guys and wants to be an actress. Sotelo shines in “I Love Being a Girl.” She tutors Mei-Li (who’s sweet on Ta) on becoming his “American Dream” girl—with the right clothes, makeup, and attitude. Linda projects a 50s American identity.
Wang (irrepressible Bryan Pangilnan), assimilates in hilarious overdrive. As the patriarch of Chinese opera theater, he’s initially intent on keeping tradition alive, showing disdain for “white devils and fake Chinese.” But when Ta brings around the lovely promoter Madame Liang (delightful Melinda Meeng), whose marketing skills draw in new audiences and big money, he jumps on the American bandwagon.
Wang becomes “Uncle Sammy Wong” in a red, white and blue sequined suit and top hat. I’ve never seen Uncle Sam co-opted so cleverly.
Scenic Designer Ting-Na Wang recreates Grant Avenue, Chinatown. Choreographer Alex Hsu and Costume Designer Y. Sharon Peng present “Fan Tan Fannie’ where dancers in brilliant orange costumes snap Chinese fans —radiant butterflies in motion. The ensemble dance with six-foot chop sticks for “Chop Suey.”
Music Director Amanda Ku’s 10-member orchestra (hidden under the stage!) keeps pace with the action above, weaving a tapestry of sound that envelops the theater.
Director Tung Crystal embodies Mei-Lei’s timely reminder: “To create something new, we must first love what is old.”
Photos by Joyce Goldschmid
“Flower Drum Song” by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, book by David Henry Hwang, directed by Lily Tung Crystal, at Palo Alto Players, Lucie Stern Theater, Palo Alto, California, through Sunday, May 12, 2019. Info: paplayers.org
Cast: Emily Song, Bryan Pangilinan, Joey Alvarado, Jomar Martinez, Bryan Munar, Marah Sotelo, Melinda Meeng, and John Paul Kilecdi-Li.
Ensemble: Kevin Achas, Kristy Aquino, Duc T. Duong, Yoshi Humfeld, Miko Ison, Ruri Kodama, Karen Law, Justin Lopez, Vinh G. Nguyen, Masami Savage, Eiko Yamamato, Richard Edward Yí.