Part autobiography, part political satire, part romantic comedy, and very much a smart, rollicking, entirely original “play with a musical,” David Henry Hwang’s new theatrical extravaganza, Soft Power, now in its world premiere run at the Ahmanson Theatre, keys in on two characters, a Chinese state film producer, Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora) and an American screen writer, David Henry Hwang (Francis Jue) who is trying to fashion a script along American sensibilities. Mr. Xue clings to his Chinese notions of propriety. The two men have radically different notions about how the story, set in Shanghai, should be told. The minute source of the conflict centers on the phrase “a good air day.” Xue Xing thinks the phrase indicates that there are bad air days, something that won’t sit well with the politburo. The screenwriter, hereafter referred to as DHH, is after some romantic realism, while the Xue, wants a pleasant story with a suitably happy ending.
“Soft power,” according to Wikipedia, “is the ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction. A defining feature of soft power is that it is non-coercive; the currency of soft power is culture, political values, and foreign policies.” Xue is the avatar of that philosophy. He is centered and controlled; the velvet glove that doesn’t quite hide the iron fist. But he has a soft spot. He has fallen in love with a young American woman, Zoe (Alyse Alan Louis). It is an impossible situation, since his Chinese sense of duty and family trumps any personal consideration of a permanent liaison.
The time frame is 2016, shortly before the American elections. A horrific incident straight out of the biography of DHH, propels the story into a dreamy musical fantasy that is sharply political. The satire features genuine romantic emotion centered on Hilary Clinton’s run for the White House. Sound improbable? It sure does, but there it is. The concept is audacious with many takes on both the buttoned up Chinese culture and the comparatively rude American scene, replete with gun-toting street punks and gun-toting politicians. Soft Power kept the opening night audience in rollicking laughter throughout, save for touching moments of romance and other moments of potential and actual violence.
Alyse Alan Louis and Conrad Ricamora sing up a storm individually and in duet. The ensemble—Billy Bustamante, Kara Guy, Jon Hoche, Kendyl Ito, Austin Ku, Raymond J. Lee, Jaygee Macapugay, Daniel May, Paul Heesang Miller, Kristen Faith Oei, Maria-Christina Oliveras, and Geena Quintos—are terrific in voice and superb in executing Sam Pinkleton’s energetic, imaginative choreography with wonderful precision. Kudos to those stepping into principal characters— Jon Hoche as Tony Manero and the Chief Justice; Kendyl Ito as Xue’s daughter, Jing; Austin Ku as the reformed punk, Bobby Bob; Raymond J. Lee as Randy Ray and the Veep; and Maria-Christina Oliveras as the Campaign Manager.
DHH wrote the lyrics and Jeanine Tesori wrote the score and additional lyrics, with orchestrations by Danny Troob, all supervised by Chris Fenwick. A twenty-two-piece orchestra is always satisfying to hear and this orchestra, under the direction of musical director and conductor David O is splendid.
Director Leigh Silverman keeps the show galloping at a fast pace, save for the tender moments of romance and emotion. The physical production matches the direction with fast scene changes and theatre magic. Scenic designer David Zinn pulls out the stops with designs that are over-the-top fantasies of American culture, Chinese sleekness, and bare stage minimalism. All of the creative staff deserves a mention. They are Anita Yavich (costume design), Mark Barton (lighting design), Kai Harada (sound design), Tom Watson (hair & wig design), Angelina Avallone (make-up design), Steve Rankin (Fight Director), and Joel Goldes and Joy Lanceta Coronel (Dialect Coaches).
David Henry Hwang’s Soft Power is a bold triumph in a unique form that blends the social issues of race relations, international relations, and American and Chinese politics in an up-to-the minute sensibility that includes the American gun tragedy and the world’s wonder at the convoluted situation of an electoral college rooted in a past that insured the continuation of slavery. Soft Power is a heavyweight work of art that is as thought provoking as it is entertaining. It fully deserved the opening night audience’s instantaneous standing ovation that continued in power as the large cast took their well deserved bows. If you love theatre, if you love drama, if you love comedy, if you love musical theatre, this is your show. Soft Power is a powerhouse. See it!
Soft Power continues at the Ahmanson Theatre through June 10.