What starts as a thought provoking play about cross cultural perceptions turns into a time traveling hallucination by way of a sumptuous musical in the world premiere of David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s Soft Power at the Ahmanson. It is a kaleidoscopic mash-up of genres and cultures that is thoroughly new which is no surprise given both Hwang and Tesori’s groundbreaking work.
The story begins in Los Angeles just before the 2016 election where we meet a Chinese-American writer, a fictionalized version of Henry David Hwang, who has been invited to work with Chinese producer, Xue Xing, on a “Sex and The City” type tv show for China. The witty banter between Francis Jue as Hwang and Conrad Ricamora as Xing here is fantastic as the two men dance around creative control of their cultural perspectives. They end up at a fundraiser production of The Kind and I where Xing is introduced to candidate Hillary Clinton and the two engage in a political conversation where Xing gives the would be president some advice.
Based on the real Hwang’s own experience with a hate crime, the writer in the show is attacked on his way home from the show and so begins his fever dream that takes us 50 years into the future where we enter into a revival of a beloved Chinese musical based on the events we have just witnessed. From this Chinese perspective, America is a dangerous, gang infested place where everyone brandishes a gun. There is Hollywood Airport, McDonald’s fine dining with rollerskating waiters, twerking Juicy Couture wearing rappers and gun toting cowboys; Americana to the extreme and ridiculous. But is it any more ridiculous than the king of Siam learning how to govern his own country from a British nanny?
Xing’s girlfriend in the first part of the play explains how we as an audience are lulled along into accepting things that are inaccurate and even offensive with the beautiful “delivery system” of a lush musical. As Hwang explained, as offended as he might be watching something like The King and I, he still cries at the beauty of the score. I honestly just wanted even more of this “delivery system” in Soft Power as I think it could benefit from some trimming of exposition and giving us even more of the music.
There are so many things to love here from the breakout performance of Ricamora as the conflicted Xing, to love interest, Hillary Clinton, played with impeccable comedic timing and a powerhouse voice by Alyse Alan Louis. She is a splendor in her white power suit, eating pizza post election, and absolutely kills it, uncomfortably and hysterically so, as candidate Clinton literally dancing for her supper and votes. Jue is very funny as Hwang but also delivers in the more poignant moments.
The Tesori score runs the gamut of Broadway styles, effectively conveying everything from hip-hop culture to an Oklahoma style ode to guns as well as beautiful songs like “Dutiful” about being Chinese and doing what is expected. “It Just Takes Time” is a brilliant take on the intricate tones in Mandarin that you will leave humming and “Democracy” will make you want to stand up and cheer.
Soft Power is an incredibly deep dive into our cultural identities, politics, family dynamics and how we each perceive these things. It is a staggering, emotional and hilarious journey that is absolutely worth taking.
The world premiere of David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s SOFT POWER continues at Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre through June 10, 2018. Directed by Leigh Silverman, choreographed by Sam Pinkleton and stars in alphabetical order 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.
Tickets for “Soft Power” are available by calling (213) 972-4400, online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org or at the Center Theatre Group Box Office located at the Ahmanson Theatre. Tickets range from $30 – $130 (ticket prices are subject to change). The Ahmanson Theatre is located at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012.