Monday, April 29, 2019

Everything in 'Flower Drum Song' adds up to a hit

Marah Sotelo as Linda Low (center) and the ensemble dazzle in "Fan Tan Fannie."

If ever a production number itself is worth the price of admission, it’s “Fan Tan Fannie” in Palo Alto Players’ production of “Flower Drum Song.”

The precision fan snaps and dancing by the ensemble and Marah Sotelo as Linda Low are nothing short of spectacular.

There’s so much more, though, in this musical by composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II.

Start with their memorable songs, like “A Hundred Million Miracles,” “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” “You Are Beautiful,” “Grant Avenue,” “Love, Look Away” and more.

Add in David Henry Hwang’s updated adaptation of the original book by Hammerstein and Joseph Fields. This newer version focuses on the struggles of Chinese immigrants as they try to adapt to American life in 1949 and 1950.

Moreover, the all-Asian and Asian American cast is terrific in all aspects under Lily Tung Crystal’s direction and imaginative staging.
Y. Sharon Peng’s sometimes elaborate costumes and Ting-Na Wang’s set create a visual spectacle augmented by Pamila Gray’s lighting and Brandie Larkin’s sound.

Much credit also goes to choreographer Alex Hsu, along with consultants in dialects, culture, Chinese opera and Chinese dance. Music director Amanda Ku leads the basically fine orchestra except for a few sour notes.

Thus you have just the right blend of ingredients for a hit show.

Emily Song plays Mei-Li.
The characters are multi-dimensional, too, starting with sweet-voiced Emily Song as Mei-Li, the heroine. After her father is seized by Chinese communists, she joins others taking the arduous boat trip to San Francisco and a hoped-for new life.

She finds a Chinatown club whose owner, Wang (Bryan Pangilinan), tries to make a living performing traditional Chinese opera with his son, Ta (Jomar Martinez.) Wang hires her to dance with him when she shows she’s much more accomplished than Ta.

Wang clings to the old ways, but Ta wants to appeal to more modern American tastes with the popular nightclub format offered once a week at Wang’s club.  

Wang does come around and takes center stage in the Act 2 opening, “Chop Suey.” He emerges from a giant Chinese takeout carton while the women sport fortune cookie hats and the men wield giant chopsticks.

Wang (Bryan Pangilinan in white) and the ensembe serve up "Chop Suey" to open Act 2.
In the midst of all this spectacle, there’s romance though it’s sometimes rocky. Mei-Li grows fonder of Ta, who pursues Linda, who isn’t interested. Wang and the brassy Madame Liang (Melinda Meeng), a talent agent hired by Linda, become attracted to each other.

Every principal character seems perfectly suited for his or her role. Besides those already mentioned, Joey Alvarado plays the wise, kindly Uncle Chin, and Bryan Munar is the fussy costumer, Harvard.

John Paul Kilecdi-Li portrays Chao, who made the journey with Mei-Li and is attracted to her. After working in a fortune cookie factory that’s a virtual sweatshop, however, he and other disillusioned immigrants return to China.

There’s more, but all turns out well in this highly entertaining show.

In the curtain call, each performer says where he or she was born. Most of them are from Asian countries.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “Flower Drum Song” will continue through May 12 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

For tickets and information, call (650) 329-0891 or visit

Photos by Joyce Goldschmid