Review: Whistling A Snippy Tune

May 23, 2018 | By Bruce R. Feldman

“Soft Power,” The Ahmanson, Los Angeles, May 3-June 10, 2018

In Brief: David Henry Hwang revisits familiar territory, the cultural tensions and misapprehensions between China and the U.S., this time as a musical. Not entirely satisfying, but well worth seeing for Hwang’s cheeky writing, gifted cast, and overall high production values.

How do you solve problems like looming Chinese cultural hegemony and a splintered American elections system that rewards the preferences of the minority? Which system is better, Chinese communism with all of its efficiencies or a messy American democracy that’s unraveling before our eyes?

Alyse Alan Louis as Hillary Clinton in "Soft Power." (Photo: Craig Schwartz)

Those are the consequential questions at the heart of David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s Soft Power, a bracing, biting new musical – yes, musical – now at The Ahmanson.

Provocative, entertaining, funny, caustic, smart, at times brilliant, at others frustrating: Soft Power is all of these things. It’s a churning vortex of big ideas and progressive angst stuffed into a slick musical satire casing.

Hwang has constructed the play as a futuristic fantasy that is both visionary and cautionary, as well as audacious, self-referential, and pretty droll throughout.

An Asian-American writer, DHH (the playwright’s alter-ego deftly played by Francis Jue) hopes to get financing for a new TV series – an updated Sex and the City set in Shanghai – from detached Chinese businessman Xue Xing. In the opening scene, the two bicker over details in the script, exposing, comically, their many cultural differences.

But they can agree on one thing: the key to getting what each wants is Xue’s much younger American girlfriend, Zoe (Alyse Alan Louis).

That night, DHH takes them to a charity performance of The King and I benefitting Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. DHH and Zoe strike up a conversation about the show they’ve just seen. Zoe explains that musicals are the perfect “delivery system” for getting a serious message across effectively, while Xue gets to meet Hillary Clinton and takes a selfie with her.

Back in New York, DHH tells us about the time he was stabbed in the neck in an act of random street violence. While sedated in the hospital he dreamed that he was in an outlandish musical comedy set both in early 21st century Los Angeles and 22nd century Shanghai. This forms the centerpiece of Hwang’s brave, offbeat invention.

Are you with me so far?

Conrad Ricamora as Xue and Francis Jue as the playwright's alter-ego. (Photo: Craig Schwartz)

Hwang has said that he was inspired in part by his love of Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical comedies, especially The King and I. Actually, Soft Power is the opposite of that show, starting with the notion that European values are somehow superior to quaint Oriental ones.

Instead, Hwang debates the benefits and evils of communism and democracy and of Eastern vs. Western cultural mores in a forthright manner. Understatement isn’t to be found in his playwriting toolbox.

The production has a lot of crowd-pleasing pizazz, thanks to Leigh Silverman’s spirited staging, Sam Pinkleton’s energetic choreography, a top-notch orchestra conducted by David O, and many exceptional performances.

Like Anna Leonowens in The King and I, Francis Jue squarely personifies the well meaning Westerner who assumes his views and way of life are better, only to have his suppositions challenged during the course of the evening.

Louis plays the dual roles of the earnest Zoe and a let-it-all-hang-out Hillary Clinton, embittered after her election loss. It’s a bravura turn.

With a lovely singing voice, Conrad Ricamora brings authority and humor to Xue, ultimately revealing the true feeling and vulnerability beneath his cool exterior.

Kendyl Ito also stands out as Xue’s daughter, Jing. She is particularly memorable as the young Jing kvetching about her Chinese childhood ("Yes, I am dutiful. I am Chinese") in a number that somehow manages to recall The King and I and the kids singing Come to the Fun Home in Tesori’s wonderful earlier musical, Fun Home.

Hwang wrote most of the lyrics. Tesori wrote the rest and also composed the score. There are lovely or funny musical moments, but no song is entirely successful in the way that Changing My Major (to Joan) or the show-stopping Come to the Fun Home were in Fun Home.

"Soft Power" combines biting political satire with big musical numbers. (Photo: Craig Schwartz)

Soft Power has a lot of appealing elements. It’s not perfect. That it works as well as it does is a testament to Hwang’s confident way with his characters and keen powers of social observation. He knows what he wants to say and doesn’t shy away from putting it out there forcefully, and with pointed humor.

What Soft Power can’t do is to offer real-world solutions to the tremendous geopolitical issues of our day. That’s probably asking too much of any musical comedy.

Now, about that "delivery system." Early in the first act of Soft Power, Zoe tells DHH that the members of the activist theater group she belongs to think of their work as having two parts: the political message and the delivery system.

“Musicals are maybe the best [delivery] system ever. I mean, once those violins start playing, we are gone. Whatever they feed us goes straight to our hearts in the rush of a big sugar high.”

And here you have David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s ambitious, fascinating, and skillfully mounted new production in a nutshell. It’s a political manifesto, a social and geopolitical satire, and a cultural touchstone masquerading as a big Broadway musical.

Does it do that well – or at least well enough?

That’s the ¥64,000 question.

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