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Soft Power, in its world premiere at the Ahmanson Theatre, mashes up all of these and other notions. Hwang, the author of M. Butterfly, has joined forces with composer Jeanine Tesori (Caroline, or Change; Fun Home) to deliver an experience that is delightfully unique. This "play with a musical" directed by Leigh Silverman is a fantasia of socio-political insights packaged as a vision quest. And with its trippy cinematic homages and some kick-ass musical staging by Silverman and choreographer Sam Pinkleton Soft Power is also a real kick.
Loosely mining events from his own biography as he did in Yellow Face, Hwang deploys a dramatic alter ego called DHH (played by Francis Jue), the "world’s most successful Chinese American playwright," who is launched on a quest designed to win him some combination of financial success and enlightenment. But before the evening is too old, Hwang yanks the rug out from under DHH and shifts the focus to an individual who is even more adrift &emdash. That would be Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora), a Chinese film and TV producer relocated to Los Angeles who was positively stone-faced when he was on the receiving end of a pitch for a Sex in the Cityesque sitcom set in Shanghai.
Xing, like DHH, is conflicted both over who he is and over what he is meant to represent. The balance of power is shifting in China’s favor, and as a cultural ambassador, Xing aims to protect his country’s image and advance its position. The way this end may best be achieved is via, of all people, 2016 presidential front runner Hilary Clinton (Alyse Alan Louis), with whom Xing falls in love after meeting her at a post-show benefit.
The road to happily ever after has faced far greater barriers than a presidential campaign or the nuances of international diplomacy. And Xing is also trying to negotiate a path through a Los Angeles that is fraught with wonder as well as danger.
When Xing takes over the story, Soft Power transforms into a musical, complete with power ballads and high energy dance numbers. Hwang and Tesori know exactly what kinds of material they’re playing with, and they must surely have had as much of a blast creating a Music Man evoking number like "Panic" as Louis’s Clinton seems to be having performing it.
We are grounded firmly within someone character’s cinematic dream, and certain parts of these proceedings are goofy or self-indulgent. The second-act-opening scholar’s panel, featuring a bunch of academics celebrating/debating the new brand of Chinese musical, is a bit of a thematic sledgehammer. On the other hand, given how entertaining and funny all of this is, and how little lag or dead weight there is in Silverman’s staging, who cares!
There is so very much to see here. That futuristic McDonald’s (crafted by set designer David Zinn), the site of one of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign rallies, with its skating waiters and garish chandeliers, is a visual delight all by itself. And those climactic romantic interludes played out by the chemistry- suffused duo of Ricamora and Louis take place against a Los Angeles backdrop that is clearly meant to evoke Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, and not simply because Louis’s Mrs. Clinton rocks a yellow dress.
The most recent Broadway revival of The King and I was reportedly topmost in Hwang’s mind during the years that he and Tesori were putting this project together. Undoubtedly, we’re expected to consider Soft Power through a kind of reverse R&H prism. Through the befuddled film producer Xing, is the east enlightening the west this time around? Or is the unbowed Mrs. Clinton, muscling her way through an anthem about "Democracy," intended to have the last word?
Who can say? Even in the fevered imagings of DHH, Xing or wheover else is crafting this tale, Mrs. Clinton doesn’t reach the Oval Office. She loses the election, but wins our heart. In a theatrical experience wherein the power is soft, but the intellect is keen, that’s not a bad trade-off.
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Book and Lyrics by David Henry Hwang
Music and additional lyrics by Jeanine Tesori
Directed by Leigh Silverman
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 and Emily Stillings
Scenic Design: David Zinn
Lighting Design: Mark Barton
Sound Design: Chris Moscatiello
Costume Design: Anita Yavich
Music Direction: David O
Choreography: Sam Pinkleton
Hair and wig design: Tom Watson
Stage Manager: David Lurie-Perret
Plays through June 10, 2018 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 972-4400, www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.
Running time: Two hour and 30 minutes with one intermission
Reviewed by Evan Henerson
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