OK, a musical that satirizes musicals. Or current US politics. Or one about how folks in China might view (and misunderstand) America — set 50 years from now.
OK, these ideas would get thrown out of the elevator in mid- pitch. But in this elevator are playwright David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly), composer-lyricist Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home), and director Leigh Silverman (Violet). All are musical-theatre heavyweights, successful enough to get away with crazy. Or at least try.
When the doors open, out steps Soft Power, a wildly ambitious musical satire that achieves every impossible thing it sets out to do. It pokes fun at musicals as a way to tell stories, taking special aim at the stories we tell ourselves about other cultures — and our own. For his musical target, Hwang chooses The King and I, which he loves. But it’s a guilty pleasure, because it so painfully embodies American (and British) arrogance toward — and ignorance of — Asian culture.
In Soft Power, Hwang stands the classic tale on its head. Instead of British schoolmarm Anna teaching “civilized’ ways to Siam’s King Mongkut, he has Chinese film producer Xue Xing fly to Hollywood to teach Americans how to make a musical — and unexpectedly meet presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Then Xue’s stateside collaborator, a playwright named Hwang, is stabbed by a mugger. In a hospital delirium, the playwright dreams an “American style” musical that Chinese storytellers, by 2068, will have fabricated from Xue’s journey.
This tale-within-a-tale lets playwright Hwang (the real one) stand between his two cultures, tossing satiric barbs at both — and at how we humans transform our experience into stories that may be art, fable, entertainment, propaganda, or an indistinguishable mixture.
A satire aimed at musicals is, of course, musical as well as verbal. Here, Hwang’s partner Tesori takes the lead, directing the heavy archery with masterful skill and hilariously bad taste. She serves up every song moment a musical buff could hope for, each done in top form — and each just over the top, mocking both the form and itself. The songs are necessary, effective, often beautiful. They move us, yet also make us aware of the innate silliness of what we’re doing.
Soft Power‘s comic arrows land every time, and we laugh gratefully to see so many foibles so neatly punctured, even if they’re our own. We smile at the stereotypes the characters enact (in this play, they do it with a wink), and chuckle at their inability to see each other. Yet such is the skill of Hwang’s and Tesori’s writing, and the company’s performing, that we see them not merely as comic figures, but as people we care about.
This is no mean trick. And it lends the play, for all its fun and frolic, a sense of gathering melancholy. Beneath each sally of wit lies a wound, and as things progress, we are led to our tears. Still, we’re kept laughing; and finally, we cheer for the achievement. (We also cheer because we so terribly need this catharsis, a chance to laugh at and mourn for our confused, collapsing culture.)
Center Theatre Group stages Soft Power, which it co-commissioned, with no holds barred. Every moment of the story is brought to vivid life in a bravura display of theatrical resources. David Zinn’s scenic designs range from modest minimalism to brash opulence, with wicked humor, revealed by Mark Barton’s lighting. Many scenes open to delighted laughter and applause before a line is spoken.
Under David O’s direction, the pit orchestra is energetic, clear, and flawless; and what’s a musical without dancers? Sam Pinkleton (choreographer) and John Clancy (dance arranger) make every number move, from soft waltzes to exploding high-kick climaxes, recalling — and deftly mocking — dance moments we have loved.
Thanks to the precise designs and swift changes created by Anita Yavich (costumes), Angelina Avallone (makeup), and Tom Watson (hair and wigs), we instantly recognize our characters, their social places, and even their current moods.
All this artistry gives the actors a perfect world to perform in — and perform they do. As famous playwright Hwang, David Jue gives us a sweet, wisecracking fool who stumbles into wisdom and takes us with him. Conrad Ricamora’s Xue Xing gently but firmly impels the journey, and slowly unbuttons his mental Mao suit as he falls toward love. Austin Ku nicely creates Billy Bob, a hapless young hillbilly who keeps somehow being a hero; and Raymond J. Lee and Jon Hoche deliver a fistful of those outsize secondary characters who move the plot along while mugging, dancing, and singing.
Then there’s Alyse Alan Louis, who plays Xue’s girlfriend Zoe, a nice turn — and Hillary, the hardest character to do, being a world-class media celebrity. Louis, wisely, does not imitate: She gives us a fair resemblance, then unpacks a suitcase full of intense, conflicting (and wholly understandable) emotions.
And she sings. When Hwang was first imagining this story, in 2014, the idea was that Hillary, like Mongkut, would be running a country. The cataclysm of 2016 gave a tragic underscore to Act 2 — and gave Tesori a show-stopping song to write for Hillary. It’s a number few singers can deliver, but when Louis delivers its opening note, the house erupts.
Leaving the theatre, I overheard a group of guests exclaiming, “These actors! Where have they been?” “How did they find them?” “Why aren’t they on Broadway?” Well, they are. Often. Jue did M. Butterfly there, Ricamora did (wait for it) The King and I there, and Louis did Amalie and Mama Mia! there. Even Kendyl Ito, who charms in a small scene as Xue’s daughter, did the world tour of Matilda.
This astonishing array of world-class talents is brought into unity and coherence by Silverman, who not only directed Tesori’s Violet on Broadway, but has helmed a half-dozen of Hwang’s major works.
A friend who specializes in directing musicals says the job is like leading an army, a navy, and an air force, each from a different country, in total darkness. Under Silverman’s eye and hand, all the forces work together seamlessly and arrive in triumph.
Soft Power was a risky project to bet on. But the risk pays off richly, thanks to CTG’s lavish resources and the remarkable artists who have gathered to create it. It’s a constant surprise and delight, one of the best things I’ve seen at the Ahmanson (where I’ve been going since it was built). Catch it before it heads to Broadway. Or Beijing.
Soft Power, by David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori, directed by Leigh Silverman.
Presented by Center Theatre Group at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 Grand Ave., LA 90012.
Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:00,
Saturdays at 2:00 and 8:00,
Sundays at 1:00 and 6:30,
through June 10.
Tickets: <https://www.centertheatregroup.org/tickets> or