Kenneth Tynan punningly dubbed the 1958 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song “a world of woozy song.” The current staging, with a new book by David Henry Hwang, may be panningly labeled “the world of woozy Hwang.” Hard to say whether to blame p.c., Hwang’s ego, or the recent vogue for new books – think also of the unfortunate revival of The Boys From Syracuse. Such rewrites are not unlike updating Hamlet’s advice to Ophelia as “Get thee to a consciousness-raising group.” The original book by Hammerstein and Joseph Fields, based on a fiction by C. Y. Lee, may have been naïve and sentimental, but it was of a piece with the songs and it dealt sympathetically with a then-novel subject. Hwang’s attempt at political and social relevance merely grafts pretension on naïveté. (Among other things, it eliminates a secondary character who had the score’s gorgeous ballad “Love, Look Away,” now transposed down and belted by Lea Salonga, to less good effect.)
Not that the new story of romantic and showbiz intrigue in a 1960 San Francisco Chinatown performance space is without potential, but in Hwang’s version it lacks all logic and consistency. The owner, old Wang, runs an unsuccessful Chinese Opera house that his son, Ta, hopes to turn into a nightclub. Wang is all too easily converted to performing blissfully in an irreverent cabaret act that makes a mockery of his traditional values. And Mei-Li, the sweet young illegal immigrant from Communist China, may no longer, as in the original version, compete with the nightclub’s star stripper, Linda Low (the superb Sandra Allen), for Ta’s affection: Now the two women must bond in anachronistic sisterhood. Mei-Li has a dramatically underdeveloped suitor, Chao, who wants to take her to Hong Kong with him. We also get Harvard, a stereotypically caricatured homosexual, and Madame Liang, a rapacious theatrical agent who inexplicably falls for Wang and vice versa. There is, further, Chin, Wang’s gently avuncular friend – in short, a set of clichés and near clichés no better than the supposed oversimplifications of 1958.
Much of the performing works. Lea Salonga is as appealing in San Francisco as she was in Saigon, and Randall Duk Kim does justice to both the austere Wang and the comic Sammy Fong he turns himself into. Alvin Ing and Hoon Lee make the most of Chin and Chao, respectively, but Allen Liu cannot salvage the unsalvageable Harvard, and Jodi Long makes the obnoxious Madame Liang even more so. Robert Longbottom’s direction and choreography – like Robin Wagner’s décor, Gregg Barnes’s costumes, and Natasha Katz’s lighting – do not stint on the razzmatazz, and most of the songs, even wrenched out of context, are not without charm – charmlessness is left up to Jose Llana, whose Ta I would happily say ta-ta to.
Docudramas can take liberties with the truth in subtle, sometimes unintentional ways. But I have no reason to disbelieve Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen that the vast majority of The Exonerated is “as it was said two, five, ten, and twenty years ago by the actual participants.” These are six people who spent from 2 to 22 years on death row, were then found innocent, and eventually were set free. Besides interviewing them, Blank and Jensen “spent countless hours in dusty courthouse record rooms” unearthing how these things came to pass. Mistaken for law students, the pair were allowed to proceed. “With a few exceptions, each word spoken … comes from the public record.”
The ten seated actors, with scripts – which, however, they barely use – enact the six victims as well as various family members and officials. What they say is moving not only because it is horrible and true but also because of how simply yet powerfully it is expressed. Six decent but not initially extraordinary persons are transmuted by injustice, suffering, and endurance into speakers of something very close to poetry. We shudder to think how much of their lives was wrongfully annihilated by the state, with frequently delayed releases even after innocence was established, and not a penny in compensation. The equally guiltless husband of one woman was executed; she vows to be his living memorial. Whatever you may think of the death penalty, or of our system of justice, the play should make you think – and feel – some more.
Under Bob Balaban’s direction, the ten actors are unerring. They are Charles Brown, David Brown Jr., Jill Clayburgh, Richard Dreyfuss, Sara Gilbert, Bruce Kronenberg, Phillip Levy, Curtis McClarin, Jay O. Sanders, and April Yvette Thompson. Honor to them all.
With Say Goodnight Gracie, Rupert Holmes has contrived an anodyne little entertainment based on the life and performances of George Burns and those of his beloved wife and co-star, Gracie Allen. Adapted in part from Burns’s rags-to-riches reminiscences, and in greater part from George’s solo and the pair’s duo material, the show combines a nostalgic sashay down memory lane with a joke book containing some of G & G’s greatest hits.
For their joint turns, Gracie would say or do something silly-peculiar about which George would question her, whereupon would come Gracie’s silly-comic answer. Why, George would ask, did she not go through with her planned trip to Dublin? Because nearing the airport, she saw the sign AIRPORT LEFT. Why was she reading a book under the bed? Because she was told to “read Dr. Jekyll and hide.” Ninety minutes of such gags, however funny, had me gagging – the whole loomed considerably smaller than the sum of its parts – but the ostrich-stomached audience was lapping it all up. Slide projections and Didi Conn’s voice gave us Gracie; George was there in the almost too too solid flesh of Frank Gorshin, who looked, sounded, and acted the part to a T – a T partly for John Tillinger, who directed.
The show’s conceit is that George must be instructed by God (whom he impersonated in three movies) to audition for a place in paradise by recapping his life. He does so, and you’ll be glad to hear he passes the test. Still, the prospect of spending an eternity with George Burns might induce one to choose, like Aucassin, the other place.
Flower Drum Song
Revival of the 1958 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.
By Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen.
Say Goodnight Gracie
By Rupert Holmes; starring Frank Gorshin.