As a Chinese-American, David Henry Hwang has spent a lifetime negotiating a balance between two cultural perspectives.
The Los Angeles-born playwright responsible for “M. Butterfly” (among many other important works) devoted much of his early career to exploring the dynamic between his Asian and American identities, and it’s a theme which he has continually revisited between the more commercially-viable diversions that have come since.
With “Soft Power” – his newest work, now making its premiere run at the Ahmanson Theatre (135 N Grand Ave.) through June 10 – he returns to it again, using his unique insight to bring the exploration into the age of Trump and beyond.
Billed as “a play with a musical,” the show’s plot hangs on a complex set of conceits which make it something of a challenge to explain. Suffice to say that Hwang underscores the personal nature of his observations by placing himself – or at least, a dramatized version of himself (played by Francis Jue) – right in the center of the action; serving the dual functions of participant and narrator, he unfolds a tale involving his collaboration with a Chinese television executive named Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora), the 2016 presidential election, a surprise knife attack, and an imagined future musical depicting the exploits of Xue as he struggles to save the world from American political ideology.
It may sound a bit convoluted, but don’t worry; it makes sense – sort of – in performance, and in any case the details hardly matter. They merely exist as a premise to set up Hwang’s centerpiece, an extended fantasia which is part pastiche, part satire, and part commentary on musical theater itself. Skillfully skewering politics – and cultural perceptions – on both sides of the Chinese-American gap, Hwang presents a sly inversion of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I,” replacing that show’s “white savior” character with a “yellow” one, and swapping the King of Siam for Hillary Clinton (Alyse Alan Louis) – who falls inevitably in love with the foreigner who enlightens her with his upright Asian wisdom. He sets the action in a wild-and-wooly America seen through Chinese imagination, complete with blond-wigged Asian performers playing broad American stereotypes; and he presents it as the product of a future world, dominated by China, viewing history through the lens of its own idealized, “face-saving” bias. Binding it all together is a catchy and clever song score, through which composer Jeanine Tesori (“Fun Home”) at once pokes fun at and pays homage to the musicals of old while still expressing her own distinctive voice and style.
To give away any more would be unfair; the delights of this unusual theatrical hybrid are worth discovering firsthand. It’s enough to say there are plenty of laughs along the way, and even if – at times – it all feels a little “Saturday Night Live,” it contains a through-line of deep reflection which ultimately blossoms into a profoundly moving conclusion and gives a retroactive weight to everything that has come before.
The talented cast adeptly handles the multiple levels of the material, with the three Broadway veterans at its center each giving top-notch performances. Jue, a longtime collaborator of Hwang’s, is delicious as the playwright’s onstage avatar; he gives a lovably nebbish, self-deprecating turn, playing into the plentiful humor of his dialogue and letting the deeper facets of his personality come through on their own. Louis is stunningly good in her dual role (in the “real world” scenes, she also plays an American actress with whom Xue is enamored), eschewing mimicry in her portrayal of Mrs. Clinton and focusing instead on presenting a humanized version of this very public figure; considering that she does this in the context of parody, and that she also delivers several show-stopping musical performances along the way, it’s an even more amazing accomplishment. Perhaps most surprising – at least for most audiences, who will know him only for his work as Oliver, an LGBT fan-favorite character on television’s “How to Get Away with Murder” – is Ricamora; he is both endearing and compelling as Xue, revealing both the sensitivity that has resonated with TV audiences and the theatrical chops he has earned from his impressive stage career.
The real star of “Soft Power,” though, is Hwang (the real one), whose script infuses what might otherwise be a piece of enjoyable-but-forgettable fluff with the kind of thoughtful and well-balanced meditation that makes for truly great theatre. His examination of the divide between East and West is astute, acerbic, and compassionate, conveying the love he has for both cultures despite all their many flaws. At the same time, he plays their predominant traits against each other in a way that underscores the very Asian concept that they are two parts of an ongoing process, two energies in flux which both shape and are shaped by each other – yin and yang, as it were. To top it all off, he uses the entire piece as a demonstration of one of its own primary themes – the idea of theater as a “delivery system” by which messages are conveyed through the heart, instead of through the brain. The fact that he makes us aware he is doing it all along makes it no less effective, and the result is an almost breathtakingly “meta” theatrical experience which leaves the viewer dissecting its many layers for a long time afterward.
For audiences who are looking more for entertainment value than intellectual stimulation, though, the show is still a winning ticket. Director Leigh Silverman has staged a clever, colorful, old-fashioned musical theatre spectacle (the dancing is particularly stellar, thanks to choreographer Sam Pinkleton and a gifted ensemble of dancers) that delivers plenty of fun for theater-goers from the casual to the hardcore. Better yet, it offers just the kind of wide-view on our troubled times that helps to take the edge off without asking us to turn a blind eye to the challenges we face.
That alone is enough to make “Soft Power” a must-see.
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