Review: The Gut Punch that is "Soft Power"

 Photo: Craig Schwartz

Photo: Craig Schwartz

Jill Weinlein

  • Chief Los Angeles Theatre Critic

It’s not often I find myself sitting behind the playwright of the production I’m attending but that was the case as I was directly behind David Henry Hwang during his latest work, “Soft Power”. 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 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 David Henry Hwang(D.H.H.), 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.

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. D.H.H 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 an “I’m ready for President Hillary 2016” sign, Xing tells D.H.H 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.

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.

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.”

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!”