Wednesday, June 27, 2018

"Soft Power"

Soft Power
David Henry Hwang (Play & Lyrics); Jeanine Tesori (Music & Additional Lyrics)
Curran Theatre (in partnership with Center Theatre Group)

Conrad Ricamora & Ensemble Members
In the past twenty years, a number of twists and turns have challenged the notion of what defines the Great American Musical.  Avenue Q, Spring Awakening, Next to Normal, and certainly Hamilton are just some of the wildly successful, more recent premieres that push all sorts of boundaries and plow new territories.  Now joining that celebrated list of musical innovations is David Henry Hwang’s (play and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori’s (music and additional lyrics) Soft Power, a category-busting “play within a musical.” Beginning as a politically charged comedy, Soft Power suddenly explodes into a full-blown musical, complete with a twenty-two-person orchestra.  That the rib-tickling play opens in early November 2016 in the U.S. and then jumps one hundred years into the future to become a fiftieth anniversary, full staging of “Soft Power, the world’s most beloved musical” (produced in now globally dominant China) is just one of the many brilliant, unexpected delights of this new, must-see musical -- now on San Francisco’s Curran Theatre stage after its world premiere at Los Angeles’ Center Theatre Group.

Just as he did in writing his award-winning Yellow Face, David Henry Hwang places himself as the central character DHH of Soft Power, played with great nuance, twinkle, and savvy by Frances Jue (who also starred in Hwang’s Yellow Face and M. Butterfly).  The comedic opening of Soft Power is a Hollywood-based negotiation between the sportive and somewhat pushy American screenwriter DHH and a more reserved Chinese producer Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora).  The latter is not shy in using his steady flow of dry humor to counter attempts by DHH to include in the proposed script obvious flaws in the Shanghai setting (with Xue Xing insisting the smog-ridden Chinese skies must be always clear and blue in the final film).

The on-stage portrayal of Asians by Americans is given a funny, but truthful examination between Xue Xing and his bombastic, blonde American girlfriend (Alyse Alan Louis as Zoe).  They both admire and condemn The King and I for its Western-centric idea that a nineteenth-century British woman teaches the barbaric King of Siam how to rule more justly (while also being a tear-producing love-story with songs that soar).  (That both Conrad Ricamora and Francis Jue magnificently starred respectively in Broadway and touring versions of the classic musical is a wonderful in-joke of this Soft Power’s casting.) 

Conrad Ricamora & Alyse Alan Louis
In a quick switch, Alyse Alan Louis goes from girlfriend Zoe to become Hillary Clinton.  Hillary is in Hollywood for a last-minute campaign swing, setting up a chance meeting between herself and Xue Xing where there is a moment of eye-to-eye attraction that certainly affects him for life, if not her.

As the election of 2016 comes to a head with the results for Hillary being a horrific shock for her, Xue Xing, and at least half of America and most of the world, Francis Jue’s Hwang has his own tragic, near-fatal surprise – one that mirrors a real-life event of the playwright himself that happened while writing early drafts of this show.  That event lands our DHH in the emergency room and into a dream world that becomes Soft Power, the Chinese musical, stage sensation of the twenty-second century. 

As six violins, three woodwinds, two French horns, and more burst into a glorious, full-sounding overture that rivals anything Rogers and Hammerstein might have written – all under the musical direction of David O – the scene shifts to a 22nd Century, red-draped stage and a story of Xue Xing as he is first heading to Hollywood way back in 2016.  That journey and his chance meeting with Hillary Clinton has evidently taken on epic proportions over the past hundred years in China.  We also learn that the 2016 election was evidently a turning point when the U.S.’s world domination of both hard power (economic and military) and soft power (culture and arts) began a long decline just as China’s sun was rising on both horizons.

Conrad Ricamora
With a voice of rich, ballad proportions, Conrad Ricamora’s Xue Xing steps to center stage to be the star of this Chinese musical that is a homage-of-sorts to the once-great American musical, now the Great Chinese Musical.  Jeanine Tesori’s music and her and David Henry Hwang’s lyrics smack of everything from Gershwin to Rogers and Hammerstein to Sondheim, with sidetracks into country and western, blues, and hard rock.  Mr. Ricamora brings a wide-eyed innocence and wonder to his character whose once-encounter with Hillary now takes on a new intensity.  He also grows into heroic stature as Xue Xing steps forward to rescue the world from total destruction.  (This is, after all, still a musical, where anything can happen!) 

Alyse Alan Louis
Once in the musical part of the evening, Alyse Alan Louis becomes a Hillary who steals the entire show.  As the still-candidate in 2016, she red-white-and-blue’s it, singing and dancing up a storm to woo voters in a Las Vegas styled MacDonalds.  Going from her designer pants suit into a skin-tight, all-legs, Wonder Woman outfit, she enters the campaign rally atop a giant cheeseburger. 

Later as a stunned, defeated Hillary -- hiding in a closet surrounded by the famous “H-in-arrow” posters -- Ms. Louis rivals the force and rawness of Janis Joplin and the strength and power of Tina Turner as her Hillary defends democracy, even as defeat stares her in the face.  The treatment the playwright and the actress gives to Hillary speaks volumes of the deep love and respect they have for her, even as they ensure that we howl with laughter at the antics of the famous politician.

Joe Hoche
Democracy in America receives pointed jabs as Jon Hoche as the Chief Justice stretches his mouth into cavernous, smiling proportions while explaining in a rollicking song the complexities of the ballot box and the electoral college that have ensured Hillary did not succeed when all thought she would.  When Xue Xing hears that the “Dear Leader” means to nuke the most-hated China, Xue Xing rushes to D.C. to confront in the White House a gun-toting horde of suit-and-tie bureaucrats.  As the sneering, swaggering Veep, Raymond J. Lee sings atop his throne of a six pack of beer, “Nothing says I love you more than a gun.”  That he, all his underlings, and all their very blonde and panty-showing gals are wig-wearing, white-faced Asians playing Caucasians is one of the great tongue-in-cheek reminders of what American musicals have traditionally done in the opposite direction.  (Remember Yul Brenner as the slanted-eyed King?)  

As Xue Xing keeps running into points where it appears all is about to go South for him, Austin Ku magically and hilariously shows up as “Bobby Bob,” a blonde-haired (of course) savior-of-sorts who uses his own gun to save his chosen pal’s hide.  Also appearing out of the blue throughout the show is Maria-Christina Oliveras as Hillary’s over-protective, bossy Campaign Manager.  Both she and Austin Ku take small roles and make them big through fabulously tailored personalities that leave their jocular mark.

From Budweiser-bedecked columns in the White House to the U.S.’s most lavish restaurant called MacDonald’s, David Zinn has much fun in creating the scenes of Soft Power.  Equally finding many ways to draw chuckles in parodying America’s historically stereotyped views of Asians, Anita Yavich has a heyday in creating the costumes for the show as does Tom Watson with all the blonde wigs he gives this Asian cast to wear.  Sam Pinkleton’s clever, often rambunctious choreography winks with glee at 1930s and ‘40s dancing duos in tux and evening gowns and at classic scenes like dancing cowboys in Oklahoma. 

Leigh Silverman directs with a big smile the shifts in time and place as well as mood and mode, ensuring we as audience get to laugh a lot while being in somewhat awe of this play/musical that is not quite like anything we have ever seen.  She also makes sure that plenty of points are made that both warn us how dangerous and dreadful our own present political situation is while reminding us that democracy can and will prevail, giving us a nudge to keep up the faith and not lose heart.

That encouragement to believe -- that obligation to believe -- comes through a stunning coda to the entire evening by Francis Jue as David Henry Hwang.  In a first-small, then ever-growing-stronger voice that shakes with emotion, DHH sings of his dream and belief “that I can be somehow worthy of democracy.” In a week when the Supreme Court upholds Trump’s travel ban, when children by the thousands are still separated from their parents, when women’s rights to choose suffers more losses, and when Kennedy announces his resignation to make way for a ultra-conservative Supreme Court, we all need to hear Francis Jue sing, “We have the power ... I still believe.” 

Rating: 5 E, MUST-SEE

Soft Power continues through July 9, 2018 at Curran Theatre (in partnership with Center Theatre Group of Los Angeles), 445 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at or by calling the Box Office at 415-358-1220 between 10 a.m. and 6 pm. Monday through Friday.

Photo Credits: Craig Schwartz Photography

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