BWW Review: World Premiere SOFT POWER Must Be Seen
Soft Power/play and lyrics by David Henry Hwang/music & additionaal lyrics by Jeanine Tesori/directed by Leigh Silverman/choreographed by Sam Pinkleton/music supervisor - Chris Fenwick/Ahmanson Theatre/through June 10
When was the last time you listened to or watched the musical The King and I and really zeroed in on it from a cultural perspecive? In the world premiere play/musical Soft Power now onstage at the Ahmanson through June 10 The King and I is referenced throughout.
Soft Power starts as a play, whose plot is a collaboration between David Henry Hwang (Francis Jue), an American Chinese playwright and Chinese national Xue Xing, producer (Conrad Ricamora). They are forming a new company called Dragon Media Group in Hollywood. Their first project is a type of TV soap about young lovers and they are at odds over Hwang's script. Xing (pronounced Shing) is new to America and is dissatisfied with Hwang's liberal, free-spirited take on his characters and their issues. We understand that Xing as a Chinese national does not believe in democracy. He is a communist and is shocked by the violence and corruption that he sees everywhere, citing emphatically that a democracy cannot work. Hwang, on the other hand, was born and raised in the United States, so is more accustomed to the problems and is a supporter of democracy in all of its forms. This is the major conflict between them, not much different from the King of Siam and Anna, of western culture, in The King and I, in which he wishes to control the world with his harsh traditional values, and she wants to transform his government into a more democratic one. Unheard of, by Asian standards!
What is terribly clever about Soft Power is that playwright Hwang makes himself a character in his play and turns it into a musical after only two scenes. You could call it a play within a play, but it's really much, much more. First of all, the musical rehashes the conflict of the play but in a fantasy form. The play is produced and takes place in Hollywood, but the musical, still about Hollywood, is produced in Shanghai years later when China is about to take control of the world. We must remember that the Chinese do not condone democracy so putting Hillary Clinton (Alyse Alan Louis) into the plot on the eve of her expected election win is without a doubt unpredictable....and sheer delight. Hillary performs a sexy dance number promoting herself and befriends everyone in the Vegas-like joint as a potential voter. The exaggerated comedic force here is overwhelming. The audience comes to love this Hillary. When she falls for Xing and he for her, we root for them, knowing full well that they could never get along. He wants disarmament but with China in full control. She wants democracy and her sung cry for it "Democracy" is big, brazen and deliciously hilarious.
Other very funny scenes in the fantasy are a dinner meeting in McDonald's, represented as a glamorous 1940s nightclub with handsome waiters and the golden arches in full background view. When Hwang is attacked on the street and stabbed, he dies from his wound, and Xing goes to Washington to call for a family of nations, to convince Congress to lay down their guns. It could be a heavy scene but Hwang writes it with strong comic flair. Congressmen are caricatured resembling Pence and other actual men in power. Perhaps the funniest scene of all is about the Ballet Box and the Electoral College as Hwang attemps to educate Xing on the American election format...and another deliriously comic moment shows Hillary mulling over her defeat eating pizza and ice cream..
If the overall description makes the musical sound complex, well, it is, but it plays far more smoothly, sort of like a rollercoaster ride in control. There's a good balance of frenetic as well as natural pacing depending on the type of scene, thanks to Leigh Silverman's skilled direction. Choreographer Sam Pinkleton keeps his dancers in full-out lively motion. And of course the entire acting ensemble are terrific. Louis gets special praise for essaying Zoe, Zing's American girlfriend in the play as well as the delightfully sincere Hillary. Thanks to fine writing, direction, superb acting and the entire creative team that includes David Zinn for incredible set design, Anita Yavich for vibrant costuming, Kai Harada for super sound and Mark Barton for dazzling lighting design, Soft Power is an audience-grabbing hit.
Jeanine Tesori enjoys in depth involvement with her characters, and her music is completely character driven. Her Fun Home showed the main characters' other side, the interior life that duels with the exterior. Soft Power follows a similar path, showing the dueling political points of view. The fantasia-like musical has the American dream winning big time - just like in The King and I . In reality, in the play, it loses. At the finale we are left with a challenge of enormous proportions, but the stimulation is there, so grab on, fight and never say die!
(photo credit: Craig Schwartz)