by Brenda W. Clough
I have never seen this musical (first staged in 2000) in production, although it’s a perennial in high schools and I know the score. Nor have I ever seen the 1967 movie, starring Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore, which won a number of Oscars. So I came to the production at the Reston Community Players this month with a pure mind.
It was a delightful staging, with the usual powerhouse singers and dancers — the theater is near Washington DC, and can draw on some superb talent. The score is one of the great ones of the golden movie musical era — the title song alone is an earworm of amazing adhesiveness. Initially weird that the villainness Mrs. Meers is so broadly faux Chinese, but then she is revealed to be a failed (Caucasian) starlet faking it, so that’s cool. But then we got to the ending, and I could feel it. Something hinky here. Where are the unities? Why is it so unrelated to the front end of the work?
So we came home and in spite of the lateness of the hour I hopped onto Google and immediately turned up the source of the trouble. The movie was criticized for its weak ending. So when someone geared up a stage production they evidently decided to fix it. And, inadvertently, they instead repaired a major flaw in the original work.
The problem with the movie, today, is that back in 1967 you could have dimwitted Chinese immigrants being manipulated and blackmailed into crime by faux Oriental Mrs. Meers. Today? ah so! Velly big problem! The musical on the stage adjusts the ending by having Dorothy the heiress fall madly in love with her rescuer Ching Ho. From nameless movie flunky to winner of the girl, in one fell swoop, wow. Promoted to romantic winner, Ching Ho can now no longer be described as marginal or exploited. He now is the male equivalent of the heroine, Millie Dillmund, the other recent arrival in New York. Millie also rolls double sixes in romance and finance by marrying Jimmy the rich boy, who is incidentally Dorothy’s brother. And this is underlined by having the Chinese brothers’ mother arrive after the curtain calls, straight from Hong Kong.
But the fix is discernible. There are now large holes in the dramatic expectation; the plot is set up for Dorothy to marry the rich tycoon Trevor because that’s what she did in the movie. You can’t just swap him out and pop in the Chinese guy without making me, at least, blink. The unfortunate Dorothy is now obliged to be an emotional dim-bulb, flipping from one man to the other with unreasonable speed. The resolution is unreasonable on the face of it even within the context of dotty musicals; how can an immigrant who doesn’t speak English type 60 words a minute, except in Chinese? The show is no longer racially offensive. But it’s getting pretty close to insulting my intelligence. You could repair this by making the emotional arc more even, amping up Ching Ho’s story. But then, because it’s a musical, he’d have to have more songs, and where could you ever find ones to fit in with “Forget About the Boy” or “Gimme Gimme”? It is, as another famous Asian musical theater character said, a puzzlement.