Risky undertaking

Flower Drum Song

The mirror scene is always the best.

The mirror scene is always the best.

Rated 4.0

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song hit Broadway in 1958, and the silver screen in 1961—the first Asian-American musical.

But the show faded fast. The tangled story of romance in quaint Chinatown fell out of fashion—and a song like “I Enjoy Being a Girl” sounded out of date as feminism gained ground. (Sacramento’s Music Circus hasn’t staged Flower Drum Song since 1964.)

Playwright David Henry Hwang revised and, to our mind, improved the show for Broadway in 2002, retaining the songs but updating the story with references to China’s cultural revolution and retelling it from a more Chinese-American viewpoint. We like the way Hwang has Mei Li (a sheltered girl from Maoist China) encounter American customs (and identity issues) on Grant Avenue. The revised version visited Sacramento on tour in 2003—otherwise, few here have seen it, so it remains something of a lost treasure.

Now CATS (Community Asian Theatre of the Sierra) has a glossy, high-energy production of the revised version in Nevada City, with a large mixed-ethnic cast (Caucasian, Filipino, Chinese, Japanese), a tight, well-disciplined 11-piece pit band (directed with panache by Ken Hardin), with sprightly stage direction by Michael Baranowski.

The show also features dozens of wacky, colorful costumes that flood the stage during nightclub numbers such as “Chop Suey,” which includes leggy women prancing around in boxy outfits that recall takeout cartons of Chinese food. Credit costume designer and coordinator Sovahn LeBlanc, and hair and makeup artist Sara Quay.

Mounting this kind of elaborate musical is a huge, somewhat risky undertaking, especially for a seasonal group such as CATS (which has previously done plays). But this show looks as good as many professional shows we’ve seen in Sacramento, and the sense of genuine fun that’s generated matches that of many local Actors’ Equity Association productions as well.

The singing is a mixed bag. Lyra Dominguez (Mei Li) has been in several Sacramento Opera productions and uses her voice well, as does Lorraine De Arco (Linda Low). Other cast members fall into the “good-hearted amateur” vocal category—enjoyable onstage, if not pitch perfect.