Mu's reimagined 'Flower Drum Song' is a timely take on immigration

Rich Ryan

Rich Ryan

The themes of Flower Drum Song have always been resonant, but this week the musical became devastatingly poignant. President Trump’s sudden and sweeping immigration restrictions provoked an international outcry, just as a St. Paul production united a talented team of Asian-American artists whose joyful performances speak to the bright future that so many have dreamed of finding on U.S. shores.

Flower Drum Song

Park Square Theatre

David Henry Hwang’s 2001 rewrite of the 1958 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical is the basis for a new joint production by Park Square Theatre and Mu Performing Arts. Retaining the songs, the lyrics, and the setting, Hwang traded the stereotypes and simplifications of the original book for a sharp new story that mixes romance and comedy with a more realistic exploration of the challenges Chinese immigrants faced in 1950s San Francisco.

Under the direction of Randy Reyes, this Song has a warmth and intimacy that makes up for its shortcomings in the razzle-dazzle department. You won’t find the booming voices, elaborate sets, and polished sheen of a large-scale production, but you’ll also discover that it’s impossible not to fall in love with this appealing cast.

Stephanie Bertumen stars as Mei-Li, a newly arrived immigrant who shows up at a struggling theater where Wang (Sherwin Resurreccion) is presenting traditional Chinese opera to empty houses. His son Ta (Wesley Mouri) wants to expand their racy, more popular shows built around sexy star Linda Low (Meghan Kreidler).

Madame Liang (Katie Bradley), an ambitious talent agent, backs Ta’s vision, and soon Wang finds himself running Chinatown’s hottest nightclub. Behind the scenes Mei-Li adores Ta, who lusts for Linda. Something’s got to give.

Bertumen is positively luminous as Mei-Li, the true believer who provides the story’s moral and emotional center. Kreidler and Bradley radiate confidence, glorying in their characters’ barbed quips and winking all the way. Eric “Pogi” Sumangil brings spot-on comic timing to the supporting role of Uncle Chin, but Resurreccion underplays Wang and leaves some potential laughs on the table.

Reyes does a nice job of integrating Penelope Freeh’s detailed choreography into the dramatic action. Still, big numbers like “Grant Avenue” and “Chop Suey” charm without ever quite achieving showstopper status.

Where this musical shines is in the quieter numbers, for example Bertumen’s “I Am Going to Like It Here” and an ironic yet affectionate duet for Resurreccion and Bradley, “Don’t Marry Me.” The song “A Hundred Million Miracles,” which serves as the show’s theme, is a moving showcase for Bertumen and a yearning ensemble.

At the show’s end, that song builds to a moment when each cast member steps forward in turn and says the name of the city where he or she was born, ranging from the other side of the world to our own Twin Cities. At the conclusion of a story about immigrant hopes and dreams, it’s a simple but hugely powerful statement that left many of Sunday’s audience members audibly weeping. Rarely does the power of live theater feel so palpable, or so necessary.

Flower Drum Song
Park Square Theatre
20 W. Seventh Pl., St. Paul
651-291-7005; through February 19