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When playwright David Henry Hwang saw Broadway’s recent revival of The King and I, he was deeply moved, even as he recognized the soft power of the West in the tale of a recalcitrant king of Siam made amenable through his relationship with an English tutor. That experience, combined with a series of meetings with Chinese producers hoping to make a splash on Broadway, became the seed for Soft Power, a bold, satirical musical with a score by Tony winner Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home), still finding its feet in its world premiere at the Ahmanson Theatre.
The work of Hwang, a Tony winner and Pulitzer finalist for 1988’s M. Butterfly, often deals with identity and appropriation, subjects that provide the thematic bedrock to the new show. As with his 2007 play, Yellow Face, also directed by Leigh Silverman, the author writes himself into the story, portrayed here by veteran actor Francis Jue. We first meet him midconversation with Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora), a film producer planning a Sex and the City-type show set in Shanghai.
The pair attend a performance of The King and I where Xing and his girlfriend, Zoe (Alyse Alan Louis), argue about the capacity for democracy to address America’s widening income gap. “How will you get the rich to give up their money if you can’t even get the mentally ill to give up their guns?” Xing asks. It’s one of many timely lines Hwang peppers his play with.
At a fundraiser immediately after the show, Xing is smitten in a brief meeting with Hillary Clinton, who is running for president against “that TV performer with all the bankruptcies.”
Soon thereafter, Hwang blacks out after being stabbed near his Brooklyn apartment (inspired by the author’s real-life experience). In his fugue state, he conjures a musical centered on Xing, who leaves his beloved China and flies to Hollywood Airport for a meeting with Hwang. He is immediately set upon by blond criminals with guns. In fact, everyone in America is blond and carries a gun. Xing finds Hwang at his favorite hangout, a meth bar, before the two head to America’s most famous restaurant, McDonald’s, complete with roller-skating waiters and crushed-velvet curtains. There, a Clinton fundraiser is underway.
Clinton (also played by the multitasking Louis) makes her grand entrance atop a giant Big Mac as she sings “I’m With Her,” an over-the-top campaign song designed to get out the vote. She executes some graceful soft shoe along with every other dance step in an effort to be everything to everyone, even stripping down to a Wonder Woman outfit for a strong finish.
She learns to pronounce Xing’s name in “It Just Takes Time,” a song about the tonal rules of Mandarin, and both get a lesson on the ballot box and the mysteries of the electoral college in “Election Night.” The first number is lighthearted and flirty, the latter rife with satiric jabs at American democracy.
At the end of the first act, Hwang returns with a dreary “I Am,” which belabors the identity themes. In the end, he decides he was attacked because he didn’t look American enough, leaving him “feeling like an outsider in a country built by outsiders.”
Returning after intermission, it’s easy to conclude that Soft Power, with its loopy musical numbers, is strong on theme, thin on plot and occasionally hard to decipher. The second act opens with a panel discussion on CCTV. We learn that we are 50 years in the future, long after China has usurped a position of preeminent power, and we have been watching a Chinese musical based on the events that opened the play, which accounts for all the negative American stereotypes. That helpful bit of perspective might have been even more so earlier on.
Two weeks after the election, Clinton despondently gorges on pizza and ice cream. Together with Xing, she takes a walk on the Golden Gate Bridge and they sing “Happy Enough,” about finding contentment at the crossroads of duty and passion, meant to be a unifying theme between China and the U.S.
When it’s discovered that war is imminent, Xing hastens to the White House, imaginatively conjured out of Budweiser cans by scenic designer David Zinn. A circle of staffers and a gun-toting Veep (played by Raymond J. Lee as more Trump than Pence) take aim at him, set on stopping “Cheatin’ China.”
In the show’s most inspired number, Veep and his staff sing in praise of a “Good Guy With a Gun,” with choreographer Sam Pinkleton (Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812) providing charming chorus-line steps, amping up the energy as he does earlier in the McDonald’s number.
Soft Power might be the most creatively and intellectually ambitious musical of the year. Unfortunately, like the dream it portrays, much of the production lacks coherence. The focus on theme over story leaves it feeling a bit like a showcase for clever songs and heavy-handed observations on identity. As a protagonist, Xing seldom drives the action, instead witnessing and reacting to events. His relationship with Clinton allows for occasional hilarious political insights but fails to ignite any passion.
For every top-notch number like “Good Guy With a Gun,” Tesori’s score includes clunkers like “Fuxing Park,” an idealized portrait of Shanghai’s green expanse. And like the tunes, Hwang’s lyrics alternate between prosaic and inspired.
Ricamora, who made his Broadway debut in The King and I, firmly anchors the cast, treading a delicate line between confidence and confusion, and demonstrating a strong singing voice and affable presence.
Featured in six songs, Louis takes on the show’s most demanding role. And from the clownish physical rigors of “I’m With Her” to the emotional resonance of “Democracy,” Clinton’s paean to a dying notion, the young performer delivers.
A frequent Hwang collaborator, Jue (Pacific Overtures) brings a warm, expressive presence to his abbreviated stage time, grappling with the sometimes stubborn Xing as he begins to question himself. Filling out the cast is an all-purpose chorus consisting of standouts like Jon Hoche, who plays a homophobic thug as well as a chief justice, and Lee (Groundhog Day), who shines as Veep.
The show moves to the Curran in San Francisco next month, where Hwang and his collaborators hopefully will work out the kinks before continuing to New York. Execution, of course, is critical, but Soft Power is based on a brilliant concept from which intelligent insights into race and culture naturally spring. Coming at a time when racism is on the rise, this original musical astutely comments on appropriation and stereotypes, turning an often hilarious and at times uncomfortable mirror on its audience.
Venue: Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles
Cast: Billy Bustamante, Kara Guy, Jon Hoche, Kendyl Ito, Francis Jue, Austin Ku, Raymond J. Lee, Alyse Alan Louis, Jaygee Macapugay, Daniel May, Paul HeeSang Miller, Kristen Faith Oei, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Geena Quintos, Conrad Ricamora, Trevor Salter, Emily Stillings
Director: Leigh Silverman
Book and lyrics: David Henry Hwang
Music and additional lyrics: Jeanine Tesori
Set designer: David Zinn
Costume designer: Anita Yavich
Lighting designer: Mark Barton
Sound designer: Kai Harada
Music director: David O.
Choreographer: Sam Pinkleton
Presented by Center Theatre Group in association with East West Players and the Curran
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