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Flash Review 2, 10-28: Broadway Beat
Tharpizing Billy Joel; Modernizing 'Flower Drum'

By Susan Yung
Copyright 2002 Susan Yung

NEW YORK -- Two very different shows opened on Broadway recently -- "Flower Drum Song" (Virginia Theatre, seen October 22) and "Movin' Out" (Richard Rodgers Theatre, seen October 23). David Henry Hwang's reworked "Flower Drum Song" is based on the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical (original book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joseph Fields based on the novel by C.Y. Lee), with direction and choreography by Robert Longbottom. The show -- now freshened up for the 21st century -- is still a conventional Broadway musical, pleasing, if a bit dry. "Movin' Out," the brand new show conceived, directed and choreographed by Twyla Tharp to Billy Joel's songs, contains no dialogue, instead plucking characters from Joel's "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant" and chaining his songs from several albums together to snake out a plot. It bursts at the seams with song and dance, though it lacks character development compelling enough to really become involved with, and maintains an exhausting energy level for too long. Nonetheless, it is a genuine celebration of the talents of two of our era's cultural icons.

Tharp has never been one to work complacently within a genre. Indeed, while the choreography in "Movin' Out" is largely ballet-based (starting from a turned-out position) Tharp churns through a chronology of social dance trends, from sock-hop to hip-hop. She puts forth elements of classical partnering alongside lurid scenes of drug-induced S&M (with believable costumes by Suzy Benzinger), and transforms bravura leaps and tours with modern, athletic twists. (I'm glad to say that Tharp's signature 'leg shimmy' makes an appearance too -- a mini-hinge on the tips of the toes.) It is a familiar perch for Tharp, who has upended expectations time after time with milestone dances with pop overtones set on ballet dancers, such as "Deuce Coupe," "Push Comes to Shove," and "Sinatra Suite." Billy Joel's list of hits is astonishingly long and varied, but his recent release, "Fantasies and Delusions," provided some choice classical texture for Tharp to work with.

Members of Tharp's own company headline the cast. John Selya, Elizabeth Parkinson, Ashley Tuttle, and Keith Roberts are all incredibly skilled, mutable performers. Selya has energy to burn, and kicked out the jambs in the second act, a virtuoso dance marathon that even requires him to jog during his "resting" scenes. He showed an acute sense of balance, permitting him to spin like a top, and an impressive vertical leap. Selya also has handsome, regular-guy looks and a muscular build, adding to his credibility as a mechanic or a soldier. (To remind us of his ballet chops, Tharp had Selya land neatly on one knee, arm properly gesturing through second position, after a particularly athletic sequence.) In the second act, he tore through "Angry Young Man," as well as a medley of "River of Dreams/Keeping the Faith/Only the Good Die Young."

Parkinson showed a similar strength and endurance in spite of her willowy physique; she paired with Roberts in several numbers, as he literally threw her about his body and onto the ground. She starred in the unavoidable "Uptown Girl" rendition, making the most of one of Joel's least appealing (if sticky) tunes. Roberts is an explosive dynamo powered by big legs. His carefree attitude suitably sobered after a turn in Vietnam for "Goodbye Saigon"; even his mop of curls became sodden and lank. Tuttle captured the right sensibility as a grieving widow, looking tiny and fragile on pointe shoes, which limited her range of mobility, such as when she ran and slid on pointe in fourth. Benjamin G. Bowman, her ill-fated mate, showed his refined ballet line well before his demise in the trenches.

The tight ten-piece band featured vocalist Michael Cavanaugh, sounding every bit like he's been singing Joel's songs since he could talk. The band sat on a platform which moved in all directions, successfully integrating the musicians into the proscenium picture. The lighting, by Donald Holder, at times recalled moments in Tharp's oeuvre, particularly the sequence of footlights upstage, evoking Jennifer Tipton's scheme for "In the Upper Room." Lighting took on even more importance than it normally would, as it shared with the dancers the job of carving out space, complementing the minimal sets by Santo Loquasto. As a giant Venetian blind was raised to form a slatted plane, incredibly strong spotlights created a matrix which hovered above the audience, drawing us into the performing space.

Tharp managed to mix up the tempos and styles of the dances, but I think the sheer quantity (29 songs) made even the most incredible dancing and choreography repetitive in due course. And the hard-hitting pace will surely take its toll on the members of the regular cast, despite their tip-top shape and being spelled at matinees. Much has been made over whether "Movin' Out" can rightly be called a musical (it is referred to now as a 'dance musical.') The genre has already evolved in recent history from Jerome Robbins's work to include shows like Matthew Bourne's "Swan Lake" and Susan Stroman's "Contact." "Movin' Out" definitely kicks up the genre several notches.

"Flower Drum Song," in contrast, is a traditional musical with a heartstring-plucking story-line about assimilation versus cultural identity, text, big sung songs, and the surefire "show within a show" conceit. Hwang has made the young characters somewhat dull, most notably Mei-Li (Lea Salonga), an earnest Chinese refugee just-arrived in San Francisco. Salonga sings with a sweet, clear voice; her deliberately unglamorous wardrobe, while underscoring her simple goodness, makes her look unflatteringly dumpy. She falls in love with handsome Ta (Jose Llana), who plays the female in his father's Chinese opera productions and runs a nightclub act once a week (and who belts out a song with ferocity); he pines for Linda Low (Sandra Allen), who stars in the cabaret. In addition to Low, the more interesting parts include Madame Liang (Jodi Long), a show-biz agent who mercifully replaces the standard issue dragon-lady, paired with Wang (Randall Duk Kim), who proves more adaptable than any of the younger generation, transforming from intransigent traditionalist to nightclub matinee idol, right down to his flame-covered Elvis suit.

Club Chop Suey, the nightclub, provides the logical place for the big song and dance numbers. Allen glittered in "Fan Tan Fannie," wearing clever costumes featuring lattice-work leggings with deep fringe hems (by Gregg Barnes). Dancers dressed as illuminated take-out cartons -- saucy, sequin-pastied, flesh-colored body stockings -- were escorted by guys carrying giant chop sticks. The choreography recalled Vegas revues, and a variety of social dances like the Charleston and go-go. The opera scenes provided another logical setting for movement numbers, the most stirring of which featured Ta seeking comfort and strength by rehearsing a martial-arts flavored sequence, shadowed by elaborately costumed opera performers. Longbottom creatively used "bamboo" poles that formed a boat, a bridge, a shack, and more.

Most importantly, Hwang has deleted the "ouch" factor from the original 1958 book -- the Asian stereotypes have been spun so that whatever motivates the characters usually comes from healthy American capitalist motivation. Mei-Lin, an exception, values love and belonging above all, and emerges as an anachronism. There has been some hue and cry about a newly added gay stereotype, Harvard (played charmingly by Allen Liu), but his role felt like the one truly contemporary figure. In the eye-popping wedding scene finale which featured an irresistible ribbon dance, the entire cast wore red silk suits, dresses, and robes -- a lavish tableau, both uniquely Asian and utterly modern, and a neat metaphor for Hwang's new "Flower Drum."

Susan Yung is the Dance Insider's Broadway editor.

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