Seen on Broadway:

Flower Drum Song

is one of the odder entries in the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalog. A tale of life and love in San Francisco’s Chinatown, it was considered progressive in 1958. Now, although the score is beloved by show fans, the book, by Joseph Fields and Hammerstein, is considered unrevivable. (Sample joke: An old lady on the phone to the grocery store says, “Send over some thousand-year-old eggs—and make sure they’re fresh!”). For the current Broadway revival, librettist David Henry Hwang has managed the seemingly impossible feat of wrapping a new story around the existing songs. Hwang has retained the San Francisco setting, time frame, and some characters' names, but the rest is new; more importantly, he has also folded a moving love story into a pointed discussion about the joys and pains of Asian-American assimilation.

The action is now set in a Chinese opera house, which the owner’s son turns into a boisterous nightclub. This concept allows for sharply written scenes of intergenerational conflict and riotously campy production numbers, along with a probing look at the dilemmas faced by Asians trying to adapt to the American lifestyle. The entire cast, led by Lea Salonga as a young refugee who finds a home in the club, is first-rate, the standouts being Randall Duk Kim as an aging traditionalist who goes Western in a big way and Jodi Long as a supremely wised-up actors’ agent. Robert Longbottom’s imaginative staging is a major factor in helping to blend the songs and new book into a coherent whole.

Having said that, I must add that the production’s design is not ideal. Robin Wagner’s unit set, a Chinese temple, is elegant, but also a bit dark and gloomy; it doesn’t really suggest the theatre where most of the action takes place. (The main backdrop, a Chinese-style depiction of San Francisco, is disappointingly dull, too). Natasha Katz’s lighting is rather restrained—her most notable work tends to be more flamboyant. However, she does bring off some lovely transitions and has some fun with the nightclub’s production numbers. The sound by Acme Sound Partners is problematic—or was, on the night I attended; there was a persistent echo effect caused by the speakers, with a definite undertone of static as well. On the other hand, Gregg Barnes’ costume design is a triumph, combining Chinese opera costume, hip 1960s fashions, and over-the-top showgirl outfits, including a line of dancers dressed as Chinese takeout boxes. Especially stunning are the red wedding ceremony costumes for the finale. I’m sorry to add that Flower Drum Song has received largely negative notices. Even with reservations, however, it is, to me, a remarkable achievement.


When I've got a brand new hairdo...

Then there’s Say Goodnight Gracie, with Frank Gorshin impersonating George Burns for 90 minutes. I am, I confess, allergic to these dead-celebrity outings. If the original star was so irreplaceable, I always wonder, why am I sitting in a theatre watching him played by a lesser name? Gorshin does a pretty good Burns, but there’s a certain falseness imbedded in his portrayal, especially when he recreates his routines with Gracie Allen (here portrayed by the offstage voice of Didi Conn). Furthermore, Rupert Holmes’ script, made up of showbiz anecdotes, sentimental reminiscences, and aging gags, is pretty tired.

But the mostly older audience members around me were delighted with every bit of schtick, so if you’re dying to relive the golden days of George and Gracie, this may be just the show for you. The production’s design is far more sophisticated than you might expect, with Howard Werner’s lighting and the multimedia—by Werner and Peter Nigrini—merging beautifully into a seamless presentation. (Then again, the projections, using clips of the real Burns and Allen, are so hilarious that you miss them when they’re finished). Kevin Lacy’s sound design suffers from a series of oddly placed music cues (Holmes is also the show’s composer). John Lee Beatty’s graceful set is a variation on the gold-frame idea that he has used before, most notably at City Center Encores! Say Goodnight, Gracie is not unpleasant, and there may be an audience for it. But I’d be just as happy to stay at home and watch TV Land.--David Barbour

Also Seen on Broadway: As much as I love Michel Legrand's score for the classic French film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, I have to admit I found his score for Amour, the new Broadway musical, to be a bit lightweight. Which unfortunately is a good word to describe the entire endeavor. Directed by James Lapine, Amour is based on the story of Dusoleil, a rather unremarkable Frenchman who wins notoriety by discovering he can walk through walls. Thus a timid postal clerk turns into a Robin Hood, stealing without breaking and entering, and eventually wins the heart of the woman he loves. But a happy ending is thwarted when Dusoleil gets stuck forever halfway through a wall. Unprobable, yes; charming, no.


Walking through walls

The sets by Scott Pask are dreary and oddly built, since every wall has to have ungainly slits that allow a man to sneak through. Perhaps this would work well on film, but on stage it just doesn't make any sense. The colorful costumes by Dona Granata give the Parisians a cartoon look (from barristers with petticoats to a garish red print jacket for Dusoleil) and some of the hair and wig designs by Tom Watson need to go back for restyling (a large, very fake beard has got to go). The lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer doesn't add much to a dull production, and while the sound design by Dan Moses Schreier is crisp and clear, the lyrics to the songs are not. The best news is that the evening is over in just 90 minutes, although the material barely fills one act, let alone two.--Ellen Lampert-Gréaux

Seen at the Movies: Julie Taymor's Frida periodically tries hard to escape its biopic trappings, but the end result is plodding and fuzzily focused. The film, which follows Mexican painter Frida Kahlo's life from her teenage years, when she was devastatingly injured in a bus accident, through her tumultuous marriage to (and career in the shadow of) artist Diego Rivera, various affairs with men and women, up to her untimely death in 1954, is a labor of love for star Salma Hayek, who resembles the subject well enough and imbues her portrayal with a fiery spirit if scant complexity. Taymor is not exactly a hired hand on the movie, but she is defeated by the lack of a strong point of view. In film, the director is still far from matching her command of the theatrical medium.

At her most inventive, Taymor paints her film with an enchanting surrealist brush inspired by Kahlo. When the artist accompanies Rivera (played by Alfred Molina) to New York, the director devises "a scroll-like Russian constructivist poster art" technique to move the actors through 3D collages of the city and images from King Kong. Periodically, paintings come to life, animated skeletons dance, and avant-garde filmmakers from Maya Deren on down are referenced. But these are just bits in a generally bland biographical stew.

When all else fails, Frida is certainly colorful. It was shot on location, in the hot hues and unfiltered light of Mexico, by Rodrigo Prieto. Kahlo's cobalt blue house in Cocoayan was recreated by production designer Felipe Fernandez at Churubusco Studio, while the Aztec ruins at Teotihuacan and Rivera's San Angel studios were among the many actual locations used. Costume designer Julie Weiss, making liberal use of antique clothing gathered around Mexico, goes a long way toward transforming Hayek into Kahlo, with the crowing touches of hair provided by Beatrice DeAlba and makeup (including Frida's signature unabrow) by Judy Chin.


Lord-ess of The Ring

The Ring got some pretty negative reviews when it opened last week, but I found it to be a gripping thriller, directed with admirable restraint by Gore Verbinski. After an overly self-conscious opening (culled from When a Stranger Calls and Scream), the film, which is a reworking of the Japanese hit Ringu, settles into its disturbing tale of a videotape that has deadly consequences for anyone who watches it. What does it all mean? You got me: the best message I could garner from the proceedings was that TV can be hazardous to your health. The rain-soaked Seattle and Washington State settings—from lead character Naomi Watts' sterile high-rise apartment complex, to rustically creepy wilderness locations--are employed for maximum atmosphere by production designer Tom Duffield, and everything is given a queasy greenish tinge by director of photography Bojan Bazelli. Julie Weiss, on quite a roll recently, is the costume designer, and Rick Baker is responsible for a few jolting makeup effects. You could do a lot worse for Halloween.--John Calhoun


Rick Baker attends to a corpse

Heard in New York: Lighting designer Clifton Taylor has received a grant to teach an advanced course in Lighting and Stage Design at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The grant was awarded by the Asian Cultural Council, which is a Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Taylor takes off on November 12, 2002, and will be in Cambodia through the middle of January 2003.--ELG

Flower Drum Song and Amour photos: Joan Marcus

The Ring photos: Merrick Morton/DreamWorks LLC