It may be your last chance to see Soft Power, the beautiful-but-complicated new East-West musical mash-up, before it’s Broadway-bound.
It’s the morning after I saw the new musical at the Ahmanson Theatre called “Soft Power,” and my brain is still trying to process the musical within a play that artfully manages to channel the Blue State angst currently polarizing our country.
Even on the drive home following the show, my friend and I had struggled to put into words what we had just seen. We were both convinced that it was current, relevant, cathartic and transformative in a way that only live theater can be. To be sure, there’s a lot going on (maybe too much), and it can be challenging to keep it all straight. But with three exceptional leads delivering thought-provoking themes wrapped in a sumptuous score, Soft Power is well worth the effort.
Soft Power was commissioned four years ago, over a breakfast meeting between Center Theatre Group Artistic Director Michael Ritchie and Soft Power’s playwright/lyricist, David Henry Hwang. The results are impressive. Soft Power is a mind-bending, and at times jarring, mash-up of Chinese and American culture. I didn’t make it to New York to experience the Broadway’s Tony nominees this year, but after experiencing this unusual collaboration between David Henry Hwang (best known for M. Butterfly) and Jeanine Tesori (best known for Fun Home), I experienced that rare but unmistakable spine-tingling sensation that comes from having witnessed a new work that may eventually contend for a Tony, right here on the West Coast.
How to describe this unusual hybrid (part musical/part play) and do it justice presents a daunting task. Let’s start with the term “soft power,” which is defined as “a persuasive approach to international relations, typically involving the use of economic or cultural influence.” In this context, Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora of How to Get Away with Murder) is a Chinese national, a studio executive who has traveled to America to enlist a famous Chinese American playwright David Henry Hwang (played deftly and with a wry wit by Francis Jue) to improve China’s Soft Power by writing a new work expressly for a Chinese audience.
The catch is that the work in question must hew to China’s state-controlled artistic guidelines that prohibit putting China in anything other than a favorable light. The two men debate the merits of a free versus a state-controlled art form with neither yielding their position. Xing expresses his desire to help his much younger girlfriend, an actress named Zoe (Alyse Alan Louis) advance her career. Hwang agrees to meet her and invites them to a Hillary Clinton fundraiser in advance of the now-infamous 2016 election. At the fundraiser, Xing has a chance encounter with the candidate which has a profound effect on him. As a result, Xing considers softening his stance on propagandizing art to allow a more truthful representation of China in popular culture.
The story shifts gears in a big way as Hwang recounts a near-fatal assault (drawn from the playwright’s own life experience) which lands him in the hospital, fighting for his life. As Hwang loses consciousness, the play morphs into a musical which transports us back in time before the 2016 election and then catapults us 50 years into the future to an alternate reality where China is now the dominant cultural superpower and has quite literally taken over White House. In this alternate universe, the actress who plays Xing’s young girlfriend becomes, wait for it – Hillary Rodham Clinton – and the musical turns into a metaphorical love story between Xing and HRC. Granted, it’s a lot to digest, but once you allow that suspension of disbelief, it all kind of works.
Soft Power grapples with some weighty issues that have surfaced in the aftermath of the 2016 election in ways that force us to confront painful truths about ourselves, our democracy, and where we go from here. While it’s not always easy to follow the narrative thread, the formidable talents of this cast and their sheer commitment to the material make this rather challenging, ambitious piece of theater blossom in a most beautiful way.
Ricamora and Jue (as Xing and Hwang respectively) anchor this show, representing two halves of the Chinese experience – the yin and the yang, so to speak. They couldn’t be more different, but they are inextricably linked. Ricamora has a full, rich voice and a solid presence that’s both grounded and heartfelt. And Jue (as Hwang) is the glue that melds these worlds together and comes to fruition in a pivotal moment toward the end which brings us back to the present.
But it’s Alyse Alan Louis who steals the show as Hillary Rodham Clinton, a role that elevates the failed candidate into the iconic tragic hero of our time. Ms. Louis channels everything we’ve come to love and regret about this complicated heroine. It’s a tour de force performance which is in full display in two showstopper numbers, my favorite capturing her alone in defeat after the election, surrounded by packing boxes, eating leftover pizza from the campaign trail.
Like Hillary Rodham Clinton, the only supposed flaw of this production, is perhaps that it tries too hard to say too much. But it’s a valiant effort with relevance in these challenging times that I’ll take any day over a rehashed musical spawned from a so-called “proven commodity” culled from a Disney movie or a cartoon (no offense, SpongeBob). It’s a reminder that politically oppressive times can produce some remarkably good theater, and Soft Power delivers this in spades.
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Last modified: June 9, 2018