MING THE RUDE

Empty Space Theatre, 3509 Fremont Ave. N., 206-547-7500. $10-$35. 7:30 p.m. Sun. and Tues.-Thurs.; 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 2 p.m. matinees Sat.-Sun. Ends

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Opening Nights

MING THE RUDE

Empty Space Theatre, 3509 Fremont Ave. N., 206-547-7500. $10-$35. 7:30 p.m. Sun. and Tues.-Thurs.; 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 2 p.m. matinees Sat.-Sun. Ends Sun., Nov. 9.

If you want to know what the Empty Space's '70s park romps felt likeand you dodon't miss Ming, a lighthearted bit of fluff in which the death of King CharmGlo Ming leaves the Kingdom of Courtesy in the hands of son Larry (Troy Fischnaller), a sweet misfit who has trouble walking and waving at the same time. This is to say nothing of how he'll behave once the nefarious Sir Pendulous Dewlaps (Kevin C. Loomis) zaps all the good manners out of hima deed that throws Queen Bess (Sarah Rudinoff), the patriotic Betty (Nicole Boote), and some dedicated little Minions into action.

Encouraged by director Lori Larsen, the cast bounces happily around as if in some vintage Warner Bros. cartoon. Fischnaller's gangly physical comedy is endearing, Loomis' goosey fiendishness is a delight, and if anyone is fit to play an animated queen it's La Rudinoffthe great Chuck Jones himself might have created her generously comic curves, and you could spend the whole show just watching her face explode.

You probably won't walk out humming any of John Engerman's music, and the lyrics that he and Rex McDowell, Phil Shallat, and Bob Wright have provided aren't going to stick around either (and is it too much to ask of family nonsense like this to keep it to 90 minutes?). Regardless, the foursome's text is winningly silly: Ming is a lowbrow highlifted by Melanie Burgess' cheerful junk costumesand a welcome return to some carefree days. STEVE WIECKING

THE JANUARY BOOK

Seattle Public Theater, 7312 W. Greenlake Drive N., 206-335-7905. $10-$18. 7:30 p.m. Thurs.-Sat.; 2 p.m. Sun. Ends Sun., Oct. 26.

After Seattle Public Theater's wildly uneven 2002 season, I half expected its production of Scott Warrender's new musical to play like something out of Waiting for Guffman. By the end of the first act, however, the show began to seem awfully professional; the wince-worthy Guffman moments had more to do with the script's feel-good simplicity than with the acting talent involved.

January attempts to transform the Bathhouse Theater's simple stage into a busy Maine inn where love, deception, and really big knivesthat is, all the standard ingredients of American musical theatercome out to play. Thanks to the ingenious use of props (suitcases are luggage, but also tables, desks, and planters) and some natty costume design by Lee Ann Hittenberger, the transformation is unexpectedly successful. The show spans 100 years in the life of the January Inn, from star-crossed lovers in the 1860s (happily including Karen Skrinde's cracked, knife-wielding Lillian) to equally star-crossed lovers a century later.

It's in the 1960s that we find the show's best musical number, "Melody Box," a cheeky satire of the "sex sells!" phenomenon in advertising. Just try not to chuckle when Susan McIntyre, as washed-up actress Connie, pokes fun at the money-making upshot of Free Love. Other cast members sparkle: David Wilson perfectly evokes Guys and Dolls as dim-witted gangster Harry; Krista Severeid has tremendous stage presence, and a lovely voice, as deceptively buoyant Marie.

In the end, January is what it isquaint and sweet, with a few sharp comic moments. NEAL SCHINDLER

FLOWER DRUM SONG

The 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., 206-292-ARTS. $18-$67. 7:30 p.m. Tues.-Wed.; 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat.; 7 p.m. Sun.; 2 p.m. matinees Sat.; 1 p.m. matinees Sun. Ends Sun., Oct. 26.

This touring production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Chinatown musical is a show wondrously reborn: David Henry Hwang's completely original book revision and stagecraft by director/choreographer Tom Kosis make this once-odd chestnut feel both fresh and winsomely old-fashioned. It's completely charming, and not a little moving in execution.

The original Flower traded on earnest Asian stereotypes, but Hwang's overhaul cagily examines those same clichés, without mocking the ingenuousness that R&H brought to the material. "Fresh off the boat" from China in 1960 comes the winsome Mei-Li (lovable Yuka Takara, whose small frame hides surprising vocal resources). She's landed in San Francisco, where her late father's friend Wang (chipper James Saito) is trying to keep his beloved Peking Opera house from the glitzy whitewash envisioned by his aspiring club impresario son, Ta (dashing José Llana). Ta will soon fall for Mei-Li, and Wang's dormant thirst for fame and acceptance will cause everybody to re-evaluate their ideas of what it means to be Chinese American.

All of this is accomplished with goose-pimply musical theater expertise. The always lovely "A Hundred Million Miracles" proves to be as tingly an opener as Oklahoma's "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning"and the further resonance lent by Hwang and Kosis sends it soaring up your spine: Beginning with Mei-Li and her beloved drum, the staging expands into a fluid recollection of her dangerous journey from China and her hopeful arrival in a new country. Everything on stage is tenderly thrilling from here on out; even the show's tackier songs ("Chop Suey") become knockout nightclub numbers. Forget saving your pennies for some future big-name import, this is the musical to catch this season. S.W.

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