Sometimes works of art that are angling to make a poignantly relevant statement on society either come from a position of misplaced biases, or just barely miss the arc of critical-mass topicality. “Soft Power,” production in association with the East West Players and the Curran, which is set to run through June 10th at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, CA, is not one of those art works.
Directed with an affecting poignancy by Leigh Silverman and seamlessly choreographed by Sam Pinkleton, the play with romance, comedy, drama, and music is the astoundingly thought-provoking ode to political and international affairs by the Tony Award-winning super tandem of David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori. Over the course of two hours and twenty minutes (including an intermission), the controversial 2016 United States election is compellingly rewound and analyzed from the standpoint of China and Chinese politics. There are stark and yet agreeable elements of reality and fantasy, fusing into a stunning amalgam that keeps the observer entranced throughout.
Preparations for the play commenced in 2014 when Hwang, who has written the play and much of the lyrics, approached Tesori, who composed the music and penned additional lyrics. For Hwang, “Soft Power” was a passion project that strove to access and represent the ever-increasing groundswell of contemporary enlightenment, particularly equality of representation and perspective. Additionally, marked by more than just his fervency, the play bears a strong autobiographical resemblance to Hwang’s own legacy, underscoring the aphorism that the best art is truly inspired by the you-can’t-script-this moments of real life. What makes this even more special is that Hwang has adeptly judged this show to be the evolution of the American musical characterized by interconnected worldly insights and implications, à la “The King and I.” This time, however, the narrative is, for a change, told by the side that we’re not always privy to. The truest history, one might say, is a balanced one where all the voices are proportionately heard.
Consequently, Hwang’s determined vision of “Soft Power” — which can also be defined as “a persuasive approach to international relations, typically involving the use of cultural influence” — ingeniously takes China’s vantage point of the Clinton-Trump melee (note: Donald Trump is never mentioned by name), which remains astonishingly germane in the media and in everyday conversations. Specifically, the play follows the trajectory of Chinese businessman, Xue Xing, played by Conrad Ricamora, who hires a writer based on Hwang (portrayed by Francis Jue) to create an American show that emanates from Shanghai. Beyond just meeting for entertainment purposes, however, the two male protagonists get immersed in politics when they attend a campaign fundraising event for the democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton (Alyse Alan Louis). Eventually, the tapestry of these events unfold brilliantly in that they are transplanted from Los Angeles to China, in a temporal shift residing in a hypothetically cosmic existence, wherein Xue lovingly ingratiates himself to Clinton and makes America great again in the present and in the future by way of the unmistakable imprint he leaves.
It is in this metamorphic transition when the play invigoratingly segues into a musical, backed by a 23-piece orchestra, which becomes the forum where Tesori’s uniquely refreshing and modern compositions (e.g., “It Just Takes Time,” “Good Guy With a Gun”) not only gift the senses with a melodic bouquet, but lyrically set the groundwork for widening our perception about what transpired in 2016, up until present day, reimagining it in an incisive cause-and-effect chain of circumspect calculations.
Conrad Ricamora leads a 17-person cast, most of whom are Asian-American, in what is an eloquent proclamation made upon the sphere of artistic and cultural affairs in the United States within a context of a profound bilaterism, which, as the observer, we see is extrapolated to mean very multilateral consequences. Certainly, the cast members reflect the changing landscape of our times such that stories on the stage, on the screen, or in books, are not only made to be more inclusive (e.g., “Hamilton”), but are represented by individuals of a specific or minority background, especially when it would be more accurate and sensible to do so.
Ricamora, like many of his stage peers, is grateful to finally be telling an account from a point of view that doesn’t stereotype him as an actor, or take him for granted, but rather one that empowers him as both a performer and human being. As Xue, Ricamora gives a well-rounded and complex performance that touches on a palpable relatability and genuineness.
Furthermore, Francis Jue honorably and reverently steps into Hwang’s shoes to elicit a gamut of emotions from the audience. Jue represents not only Hwang’s desire to fully understand his cultural identity, but, as an actor, allows himself to let loose and garner laughs, and then be completely vulnerable as a victim of irrational racism, in the form of a near-death stabbing, which really happened to Hwang. This is, of course, antidotally conveyed with the satiric surrealism of musical theatre. Confusion turns into an epiphany, as traced by Jue’s pinpoint expressions when he explains the account of losing blood, before the stage gives way to a cathartic cheeriness provided by Danny Troob’s spirited orchestrations and David O’s fantastic music direction. Another standout includes Alyse Alan Louis, who is both a virtuoso dancer and singer; she has a multi-part dance solo as Hillary at a glamorized McDonald’s, and subsequently impresses with her goosebump-inducing belting vocals. Jon Hoche also deserves applause for his remarkable versatility; he excels as a slack-jawed biker named Tony Manero, a professor, and especially as the Chief Justice, who admirably elucidates (by singing) the hard-to-follow process of the two-party and Electoral College system.
David Zinn’s scenic design is epically engaging and paints the picture of a story in between two worlds that bisect at certain points. The stage is accentuated by Mark Barton’s powerful lighting, which aptly underscores the primacy of “Soft Power” with simple, but steadfast, colors. Anita Yavich’s costume designs, too, are expertly suitable given the circumstances – understated or vibrant when need be.
Overall, “Soft Power” is highly recommended for imparting upon us the key notion that no single experience, especially one that could be fitted neatly within borders, should be given precedence over another. In this East-West collaboration, we are taught that history doesn’t necessarily have to be told in the vein of the winner/loser binary but be inclusive of motley perceived events and perceptions. Reality, fantasy, and everything in between is incontrovertibly as true as it can be to the eye of the beholder. And as much as we can hope for an interwoven harmony, sometimes the cauldron of our times stews discontentedly, whereby we might ask ourselves if there is a greater order that supersedes momentary chaos.
For more information about “Soft Power” at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, CA, please visit centertheatregroup.org/tickets/ahmanson-theatre/2017-18/soft-power