Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Soft Power, with book and lyrics by David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly; Chinglish and music and additional lyrics by Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home; Caroline, or Change), is overflowing with ideas, provocations, insightsand dramas, large and small. It's a highly political work of theatrical art that manages to present a cogent point of view without falling too deeply into the trap of taking sides.
The story roams broadly not only geographicallyfrom Hollywood to Shanghai to Washington, D.C.but also through time, at one point jumping 100 or so years into the future, and between actual events (Hwang was stabbed in the neck near his Brooklyn home in 2016) and those events reimagined for the characters onstage.
Soft Power opens in the Hollywood offices of Dragon Media, a Chinese film production company whose current hit is a rom-com about couples staying in unsatisfying marriages, with a title that translates to "Stick With Your Mistake." It's 2016 and DHH (Francis Jue) is pitching producer Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora) an idea for a television series to be shot in Shanghai. But from the first line, Xue has issues with the script that call attention to the divide between East and West, between authoritarianism and democracy, between Hollywood and the Chinese film industry, and even between writers and producers. If he wants to get his TV series off the ground, compromises will have to be made.
A détente of sorts is struck and DHH and Xue Xing meet later at a fundraiser performance of The King and I, where Xue has the opportunity to meet candidate Hilary Clinton, and is impressed, telling her "If this were China, you'd already be Secretary General." But it's not.
After the election, when Hwang is stabbed (mirroring the actual incident) and passes out, he imagines/hallucinates the musical "Soft Power," which upends the outdated Asian tropes of The King and I by adapting the story he has just lived. In his reverie, Xue Xing arrives in a fever dream version of Hollywood, in an America where McDonald's is a luxurious dining spot and folks meet up at the corner meth bar. Xue is immediately set upon by gun-wielding thugs, but manages to escape and ultimately ends up in the White House for a rather hysterical confrontation set to the tune of "Good Guy with a Gun." The musical-within-the-play goes on to become a classic, which is revealed in the opening of act two, when a panel of academics from the future debate its meanings and relevance.
If this all sounds a little intense and intricate, it is. But intricacyeven if one doesn't actively register every detailcan be beautiful. Part of the beauty of Soft Power is how it rewards an audience for peeling back its layers to discover different points of view and a diversity of experience. But the show's beauty also lies in just sitting back and enjoying marvelous performances by a brilliant, fully engaged cast.
As Hwang, Francis Jue is near perfection. He exhibits a tremendous command of his space with a delicate physical performance that somehow manages to reach to the very back of the theater. He is able to be simultaneously fully present with his scene partners, yet completely connected with the audience. His comic timing is impeccable, his charm undeniable. He is able to be the center of attention while still leaving room for his fellow performers to shine.
Especially luminescent is Alyse Alan Louis, who plays both Zoe (Xue Xing's younger girlfriend) and Hilary Clinton. But it is as the former Senator that Louis really cranks up the wattage. In the number that introduces her, "I'm With Her" (which feels a bit like the Ziegfeld Follies as staged at a Walmart-sized McDonald's), she makes an entrance that would make Donald Trump quiver with envy.
As Xue Xing, Conrad Ricamora exhibits a swagger that is threatening without being invasive. He knows he will win. He knows his nation is on the verge of supplanting the U.S. as the world's leading power. Yet he can soften up and exhibit a fanboy's eagerness, which endears us to him, despite his somewhat haughty cocksurety.
Regardless of the multiple references to Trump (the show should perhaps come with a trigger warning for both liberal and conservative audiences) and the show's somewhat gloomy (if true) view that America is about to be usurped for top billing on the world stage, Soft Power ultimately delivers an uplifting message that brought the opening night crowd swiftly to its feet. With delightful songs by composer Jeanine Tesori and splashy, fun choreography by Sam Pinkleton splashed across David Zinn's marvelous sets, the recipe for an engaging and thrilling night of theatre is complete.
Soft Power, through July 8, 2018, at The Curran, 445 Geary Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $29-$175, and can be purchased by visiting sfcurran.com, calling 415-358-1220, or visiting the box office between 10:00am and 6:00pm Monday-Friday.