Regional Reviews: Los Angeles
Soft PowerCenter Theatre Group
Well, buckle up, Buttercup. David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori would like to present a counter-argument, in the form of Soft Powera funny, subversive, take-no-prisoners attack on people who want to Make America Great Again.
Soft Power's underlying premise is that the theater has never really been a safe place; it has always been a message delivery system. Musical theatre, in particular, is known to be an effective one. And the message it has frequently (although by no means exclusively) delivered is one of reinforcement of its audience's values.
(With me so far? Good. Because there's still quite a bit of explaining to do.) Suppose China has a desire to get in on thisto make itself a big old-fashioned musical that plays up Chinese values. So China contacts David Henry Hwang and asks him to write something that helps China exert a little soft power to help it win hearts and minds on the international stage.
That's pretty much where Soft Power starts, with the character of David Henry Hwang presenting his script (for a TV pilot) to Xue Xing, the representative of a Chinese production company. And Xing, who is well-versed in Chinese censorship, picks at everything in Hwang's script which might give the world the "wrong" impression about China (even if Xing concedes Hwang is actually right). The TV show is going to be image-building stuff, and Xing is all about the right image. In a key scene, a frustrated Hwang complains to a self-proclaimed Bernie supporter (we're set in pre-election 2016) that Xing wants him to write a show where all the Chinese people are perfect. "Why not?" she retorts, explaining that white people do that all the time.
And then Hwang, who is standing in for Dorothy in this trip to Oz, has his hitting-his-head-and-waking-up-in-a-dream moment, and what he wakes up in is a Chinese musical where all the Chinese people are, in fact, perfect. More than that, it's a flipped take on the standard "East meets West" storyline, where a random white person travels to the "mystical and barbaric" East, somehow becomes an advisor to the Asian leader, changes the whole country for the better, learns something along the way, and falls in love (but it can never be). Sure, it's The King and I, but it's also The Last Samurai. We've seen this before, but now we're seeing it with the Asian guy as the hero and America as the place that desperately needs his help.
But what makes the musical-within-a-play downright hilarious is that it isn't a historical pieceit takes place in the America of now (well, 2016). And, yet, it is a historical piece, because it turns out that we are actually watching a 50th anniversary production of the musical. (And if it happens to have offensive stereotypes of Americans in it, well, it's a revival, and we make allowances for cultural insensitivities in revivals, right?)
In the musical, Xing is the protagonist, a Chinese everyman who comes to the U.S. and is immediately met with every horrible stereotype of America, and particularly "Trump's America," that you can think of. It takes aim at gun culture, drug culture, homophobia, gun culture, obesity, selfishness, gun culture, excess, short attention spans, and did I mention guns?
And while it is doing that, it is also taking digs at our history (and our present) of cultural insensitivities. Just look at the internet; it isn't hard to find someone who did something culturally questionable where people are taking sides on whether it was appropriate, ignorant or downright racist. At some point in the argument, someone is bound to say, "How would you feel if they did the same thing to white people?" Thanks to Soft Power, we now know exactly what that would look like. Soft Power has Asians in whiteface, using broad Texan accents and pointing guns at one another. But it doesn't come off as actually offensive, because we're all in on the joke. (Most of us are in on the joke. There were some folks who didn't come back from intermission on opening night.)
This is what works about Soft Power: Almost everything. Soft Power would be a subversive little show destined to make the rounds in under-99 seat theatres were it not for the fact that Hwang and Tesori are very, very good, and have put together a top quality comedic score for this thing. The cast, led by Conrad Ricamora, delivers. When the frame around the musical starts, Ricamora's Xing speaks in heavily accented English, and is the powerful jerk who won't let Hwang write the script he wants. But in the musical, Ricamora's accent and attitude disappear, and Xing is an easygoing, likeable leading man, with a strong voice and good comic timing. The real comic hero of the night, though, is Alyse Alan Louis, who doubles as the Bernie supporter in the real world and the American leader with whom Xing falls in love in the musical.
And it nearly all falls apart right before intermission. The show briefly gets very dark and uncomfortable. There are valid artistic (and political) reasons to go there, but it kills the recent comic highs dead. But the real problem is that the dark bit is followed up by a touching and emotional song, which has zero actual impact on the audience because the necessary setup is lacking. It's as though Hwang and Tesori were have so much fun writing the crazy comedy in their musical, they forgot that they needed to establish the themes that would carry them into intermission.
There is impact at the end of the playalthough possibly not the one you were expecting. But by the time everything is said (and sung) and done, you may realize that Soft Power has done exactly what it promised it would do. Sure, it flipped some stereotypes on their head and mocked some traditions of musical theatre. But by the time it was over, it had also became an effective message delivery system, which reinforced what it knew to be the real shared values of its audience.
Soft Power, through June 10, 2018, runs at the Ahmanson Theatre 135 N Grand Ave, Los Angeles CA. For tickets and information, see www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.
Center Theatre Group - Michael Ritchie, Artistic Director; Stephen D. Rountree, Managing Director; Douglas C. Baker, Producing Director; Gordon Davidson, Founding Artistic Director - presents the world premier production of Soft Power. Play and Lyrics by David Henry Hwang; Music and Additional Lyrics by Jeanine Tesori. Scenic Design David Zinn; Costume Design Anita Yavich; Lighting Design Mark Barton; Sound Design Kai Harada; Hair & Wig Design Tom Watson; Make-up Design Angelina Avallone; Dialect Coaches Joel Goldes and Joy Lanceta Coronel; Fight Director Steve Rankin; Orchestrations Danny Troob; Dance Arranger John Clancy; Music Director David O; Casting Heidi Griffiths, CSA and Kate Murray, CSA; Dramaturg Oskar Eustis; Associate Artistic Director Kelley Kirkpatrick; Production Stage Manager David Lurie-Perret. Music Supervisor Chris Fenwick; Choreography by Sam Pinkleton; Directed by Leigh Silverman. Produced in association with East West Players and the Curran.