*My review The Gut Punch that is Soft Power is featured OnStage Blog http://www.onstageblog.com/reviews/2018/5/21/review-the-gut-punch-that-is-soft-power. Here’s a longer version with a different title and photos –
While sitting one row behind Tony Award winning playwright David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly), I looked over to see his expressions throughout the opening night performance of his latest musical Soft Power. He seemed very pleased. Hwang has had great luck and success at Center Theatre Group, where he premiered Pulitzer Prize finalist “Yellow Face” and his Tony-nominated revival “Flower Drum Song.”
Reading the program, I learned Hwang’s premise about how the Chinese see Americans took four years to develop, before it was presented to the Center Theatre Group Los Angeles. It’s an eye-opener that will have you squirm in your seat with the truth of his prose.
Conrad Ricamora plays a Chinese executive Xue Xing who comes to America to help China gain Soft Power. He meets with DHH (an acronym for David Henry Hwang), a Chinese-American playwright, played by Francis Jue (also in M . Butterfly on Broadway). Since China is a nation that increasingly has a lot of hard power and is becoming a superpower of the 21st Century, Xing is now seeking Soft Power to develop cultural influence to enrich international relations.
Michael Henry Hwang was inspired to write “Soft Power” after seeing the classic American musical “The King and I.” Ricamora starred in the show on Broadway and his appealing singing voice shines also in Soft Power.
The show opens as a comedy, not a musical, as DHH and Xing sit in the office of Hollywood Dragon Media pitching a television show to be shot in Shanghai, China.
Xing tells DHH “Don’t think like an American, think like Chinese.” He also questions why China has never made a #1 movie. DHH states “China tries to control their image, but it comes off fake. In America we show our flaws. Americans show the good and bad to gain Soft Power.”
One way Xing will produce this show is if his 27 year old girlfriend Zoey (Alyse Alan Louis) can have a role.
The next scene is Xing and DHH going to a Hillary Clinton fundraiser at the Center Theatre Group’s staging The King and I. Xing admires the good-hearted U.S. leader. Standing near a “I’m ready for President Hillary 2016” sign, Xing tells DHH that he met her and appreciates how she is open to positive relations with China. “She believes we can learn a thing or two from China,” says Xing. “I told her China believes in global warming, because we believe in science.” It’s the first of many slaps to our current government policies.
Months pass and the power balance between their two countries shifts following the 2016 election results. Xing is shocked to learn Clinton lost and believes Democracy doesn’t work.
When DHH is stabbed in the neck while walking down the street in Brooklyn (this horrific act actually happened to the playwright), he loses blood, stumbles and goes into a dreamlike state.
This when the music amps up and we learn how China can gain Soft Power through the delivery of a musical through the Chinese view of the future.
The musical fantasia opens with set designer David Zinn’s China Airlines airplane touching down to fly Xing to Hollywood. Before leaving, his daughter Jing says “I hear in America everyone carries a gun, even children,” (Tragically after seeing Soft Power, I woke up to learn a 17 year old boy in Texas brought two guns to Santa Fe High School, killing 10 people and injuring 10 others). Jing has a beautiful melodic voice as she sings “Papa I’m afraid. I’m scared for you in America.” Guns are displayed and mentioned often. Two truthful lines that sent chills throughout my body include “You can’t force your mentally ill in America to give up their guns…not even the police can take guns away from the mentally ill.”
Collaborating with Hwang in lyrics and music is Tony Award winner Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home), she believes musicals are a great delivery system to impact an audience. Their songs are good, however not so memorable that I hummed any bars on the drive home. The finale however did get people up on their feet, raising their arms in the air as if we were all attending a gospel revival.
Director Leigh Silverman and choreography by Sam Pinkleton heighten the fun with the musical numbers. Most are reminiscent of the 1940s and 1950s Broadway hits “Singing in the Rain”, “Music Man”, and “Oklahoma” on up to current hip-hop culture.
One of lively scene is the Hillary Clinton (Alyse Alan Louis) number where she is dressed in Costume designer Anita Yavich sparkling red pant suit peeling away layers of clothing to reveal to a Wonder Woman outfit. Seeking to please everyone, she taps and twerks at a frenzied pace while standing in “America’s greatest restaurant” under the Golden Arches. It’s a little over-the-top, but then again, this is the Chinese perspective of America.
Another is when the Xing goes to Hollywood and Vine and is confronted by a gang of cowboy attire thugs slinging guns. He states “I was kidnapped and killed and have only been here three hours,” while a group of female rappers look on.
One of my favorite characters is the likable Asian-American thug, turned hero named Bobby Bob. Played by the talented Austin Ku, he has quite a presence onstage.
The intelligent writing by Hwang includes a lesson in the Electoral College process which stems from “In the early days, when it helped the voters keep their slaves.”
Clinton fans will have sympathy for the defeated politician during the comedic pizza and ice cream gorging scene, while she mumbles she hasn’t washed her hair or changed her clothes in 10 days.
Xing cheers up Clinton while singing about “10,000 trees in China covering the walkways so green.” It’s another plug on how China is investing in clean energy, and trying to make a better life for everyone.
Even though Clinton’s name is mentioned in Soft Power, Trump and Pence are never uttered, only implied as “The opponent doesn’t know anything about government and he hates China.”
A somewhat disturbing scene is when Xing pays a visit to The White House. Inside are columns with Budweiser logos and government officials holding Winchester style guns and semi-automatics, while singing “Good Guy with a Gun.” An ensemble of Ivanka Trump look-alikes give an aside “This is the worst place for a girl” while being a decorative ornament on the arm of each gun slinging male.
Hwang slaps us one last time when these men sing “No American will throw away his gun.”
To create a very unrealistic happy ending, Xing urges the American officials to “Lay down your pride, lay down your guns” and join China in building a new Silk Road with other countries focusing on clean energy. When asked “how did you get the Americans in the White House to do that?” Xing replies “They just needed someone to go in and say STOP IT!” I wish it could be that easy.
In the end DHH wakes up in the hospital bed believing that he was stabbed in the neck because he is not American enough. He feels a fake, not Chinese and not American. The police don’t find the attacker, and he feels he was targeted for his appearance.
Louis has one last beautiful solo about how we have the power to change. “How can I turn my back to democracy? People can be wise enough, just enough, good and big hearted enough to lift us up somehow.” The audience raises their hands, and as the house lights go up, its one of those awesome moments in theatre.
Soft Power is filled with truth, romance, laughter and cultural confusions with hints of America’s tumultuous future, seen through the lens of an East-meets-West Broadway style show. It’s not perfect, however it’s message is timely, loud and clear “STOP IT NOW!”
Soft Power runs from May 3 – June 10, 2018 Ahmanson Theatre. To get tickets: https://www.centertheatregroup.org/tickets/.