Soft Power, currently in its world premiere at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre, is billed as “a play with a musical.” This is a unique description fitting for a unique show, both in structure and in content. With play and lyrics by David Henry Hwang and music and additional lyrics by Jeanine Tesori, Soft Power taps into timely political subject matter—some may say too timely—and adds a refreshing twist, creating a show with a perspective rarely seen.
Directed by Leigh Silverman, the story begins as a play—in fact, there is no music until at least thirty minutes in. The year is 2016, and we meet Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora), a Chinese film producer who is running the United States office of a company called Dragon Media. He is meeting with DHH (Francis Jue), a surrogate for writer David Henry Hwang himself, a Chinese-American screenwriter who is trying to get his television pilot set in Shanghai produced. The two have clear differences of opinion on what the show should be. DHH, who has never been to China, sees no problem presenting Shanghai in a realistic light, while Xing wishes to tidy everything up in order to present the most appealing version of his home country. They reach a compromise when DHH agrees to consider Xing’s younger, American girlfriend, Zoe (Alyse Alan Louis) for a role. The three convene at a performance of The King & I that is followed by a meet and greet with presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (also played by Louis). Xing is the only one to actually meet Mrs. Clinton, and the three disagree over everything from politics in the United States versus China to the cultural problems in the story of The King & I.
After this, the story takes an abrupt turn into left field. DHH addresses the audience directly on a blank stage, describing a terrible incident wherein, in the early days of Trump’s presidency, he is the victim of a hate crime and randomly stabbed on the street. As he fights for his life in the hospital, he begins to have a spectacular, elaborate dream…and then the curtain rises on a grand, traditional musical, directly inspired by DHH’s recent eye-opening experiences with Xing.
The musical that follows is, hilariously, reverse King & I. Instead of a white woman traveling to Siam and teaching the king how to rule his own country, Xing travels to America and has a fateful encounter with Hillary Clinton. Once she loses the presidency, he attempts to teach her, and those leading America, how the country can learn from China, and learns a thing or two about himself in the process.
With a primarily Asian ensemble of actors, the entire show is presented through an Asian lens, all while poking fun at the American political system, traditional musical theater, and typical media stereotypes. For example, in the opening play portion, Ricamora puts on a Chinese accent, which he promptly drops for the fantasy musical sequence, a nod to the media’s tendency to white-wash portrayals of people of color. Some of the biggest laughs come from the over-the-top clichéd portrayal of America in the musical. Everyone dresses like they’re in either a western or the 70s, guns, drugs and violence abound, important events are held at McDonalds, and decor in the White House consists of giant cans of Budweiser topped with sparkly, ostentatious bald eagles.
As is to be expected from the Tony-winning Tesori, the musical numbers are entertaining and funny, and astute fans of musical theater will recognize visual and auditory nods to classic songs from other musicals. For example, in the final number, everyone dons modern clothing, stands in a row at the top of the stage, and takes turns riffing their hearts out—”Seasons of Love,” anyone? The cast is excellent—Ricamora, best known as Oliver on ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder, is endlessly watchable and flips between the different tones with ease, constantly humanizing a larger-than-life character. Jue, also excellent in Center Theatre Group’s King of the Yees last season, is quietly affecting as DHH, delivering the show’s most grounded and heart-wrenching moments. Louis in some ways has the most heavy-lifting to do in multiple high-energy numbers, one of which involves multiple costume changes, and she brings distinct personality to her interpretation of Hillary.
Zoe talks about how musicals are a fantastic “delivery system” for content, and there are a couple places where Soft Power‘s delivery system could use some work. The transition from play to musical, with DHH suddenly breaking the fourth wall, is clunky, and that pivotal monologue may play better as a fully staged scene. A flash forward that opens act two is also unnecessary, overstaying its welcome and providing fewer laughs than the main action. Much of the political humor is intentionally uncomfortable and will likely be polarizing, particularly a musical number called “Good Guy with a Gun.” It dances the line of going too far, but ultimately the strong stance on the gun violence problem in America felt urgently necessary. Soft Power already has a brief run scheduled in San Francisco after Los Angeles, and given the pedigree of the creative team, life beyond that is surely the goal. Ultimately, it is difficult to imagine a show this specific and bold going all the way to Broadway, but hopefully it will find lasting success somewhere, as its inventiveness should be given the opportunity to be appreciated by many. Intentional heavy-handedness is a difficult tone to master, but Soft Power smartly delivers many new ideas intertwined with classic, familiar ideas. It manages to be subversive while still embracing convention, and it is safe to say there has never been another show quite like it.
Soft Power runs through June 10th at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre. The running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased here. To enter a daily lottery to win $25 tickets, download the TodayTix app. The show will play the Curran Theatre in San Francisco from June 20-July 8.