A ‘POLITICAL FANTASIA’ WITH A NEW KING OF SIAM WHERE EAST MEETS WEST IS A MUST SEE
Tony winning playwright David Henry Hwang was brought to tears by the revival of THE KING AND I. He understood the King’s plight and the *soft power of the West in the American education of the King of Siam as his love for the English teacher changed his culture. Hwang says “The King and I is virtually perfect. The music is glorious, my heart was pulled into the story.” Yet Hwang was also distressed; “I also found aspects of the story troubling - this implicitly endorsing whites as enlightened, and Europeans as civilizing force.” *Soft Power/ noun: a persuasive approach to international relations, typically involving the use of economic or cultural influence. It is with this definition, his passion for THE KING AND I and the current political climate, David Henry Hwang has created a new political fantasia. SOFT POWER is sure to become the musical of this century and proudly stand next to HAMILTON.
The Northern California premier of SOFT POWER - A Play With A Musical is now on stage at the Curran theatre only through July 8th. Co-commissioned by Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, The East West players and the Public Theater in New York. With a clever book and lyrics by David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly, Chinglish) with music and additional lyrics by Tony winner Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home, Caroline or Change). SOFT POWER exposes the American Dream and looks back on history through a Chinese lens. It is a powerful political script full of wonderful images that knock American culture without really taking sides. China comes to rescue the U.S. after the 2016 failed election. The wildly paroding images include a dancing “Harlem Shake” Hillary Clinton on top a huge Big Mac and a White House made of Budweiser beer cans on a star studded stage.
The story begins as a play set in 2016 before the Presidential election, directed by Leigh Silverman (Yellow Face) she brings a talented cast of 20 Asian players including the superb Alyse Alan Louis as Hillary Clinton. Playwright David Henry Hwang includes himself in the script played by the distinguished Francis Jue. Hwang, who in the first act, works with Chinese television executive Xue Xing played by the gifted Conrad Ricamora who just finished a successful run in KING AND I in NY. The two create a TV project that does not seem like Chinese propaganda but more like a Sex and the City-type show set in Shanghai. The story takes place in Hollywood and jumps to Shanghai back to Washington, D.C. Hwang passes out after being stabbed near his NY apartment inspired by his real-life experience.
Now placed in Hwang’s dream state, the story jumps years into a future where China rules most of the world. In said dream, he creates a musical centered on Xing, who leaves his true China and flies to Hollywood to meet with Hwang. When he arrives on Hollywood Blvd. he is mugged by blond thugs with guns. He creates a dystopian America were everyone is blond and carries a gun. Xing locates Hwang at a meth bar before the two head to the iconic “golden arches”, McDonald's, with roller-skating burger boys and lush surroundings as a Clinton fundraiser fills the diner to capacity.
The play now blooms into a fully scored musical and music supervisor Chris Fenwick kicks up a full orchestra. Ricamora’s first number features the whole cast, in “Undertrue” and “Dutiful” as Xing proves his show stopping voice as we see Hwang’s dream world set in fantastical Hollywood. At a fundraiser Xing is smitten when he meets Hillary Clinton, who is running for president against "that TV performer with all the bankruptcies." Xing also tells the future president, "If this were China, you'd already be Secretary General." Hillary arrives atop of a fast food hamburger and sings “I’m With Her” under set designer David Zinn’s truly Golden Arches. Yes, it does sound campy and silly but this look at the American Dream gone mad is perfect theatre.
Clinton cannot pronounce Xing's name in the song "It Just Takes Time," about the phonetics of Mandarin. They both get a lesson about the “Voting Box” in the pop song "Election Night." The Chinese businessman falls in love with Clinton to help her become a better person, directly in line with Anna and the King subtext. Xing and Clinton celebrate a brief waltz that is the iconic moment, banner for “King and I”. All the songs by Tesori jab at American democracy including the whitty “Election Night” that is funny, and staged like huge classic Busby Berkeley musical numbers.
“Welcome to America” with over the top choreography by the awesome Sam Pinkleton (The Great Comet of 1812). The first act closes with Hwang singing the provocative "I Am," where he explores a very shared sentiment that he is not American enough "feeling like an outsider in a country built by outsiders." Music Director David O has a full orchestra with 23 members in the pit. The flawless musicians fill the Curran Theatre with passion and precision. The current playbill does not list all the songs as the show is still evolving, but the score of numbers are excellent; full of pop, jazz, hip hop and Asian inspired melodies including “The New Silk Road”.
The second act opens with a talk show, CCTV news, debating the meaning of the musical. The story is now 50 years in the future, China is now the world power, and we realize we are watching an Asia that now flat out mocks American stereotypes. Donald Trump would tweet with ease if he sat through this wonderful two and half hour play with music. After Alyse Alan Louis had to eat pizza covered in radioactive ice cream for her second act solo "Democracy", the sold out opening night audience was on their feet as she stopped the show.
Ricamora also captivated the night; his singing was pure perfection, a tenor that also stopped the show. When ever Ricamora is on stage he may seem to dominate the story but his professionalism always leaves room for his featured cast to shine. The dance lines intersected from hip hop to hand jive with 50’s steps tossed in for effect. Pinkerton's choreography is non stop eye candy. Mark Barton’s red tone lighting and rows of shining stars popped the show off the stage. I was most impressed with the Chinese red glow off the main backdrop. The bright costumes and Hillary’s Superwoman look was designed by Anita Yavich, with wigs by Tom Watson and makeup by Angelina Avallone.
The fever dream of Hwang's world when war is imminent when he encourages Xing’s move to DC and the White House, now composed of Budweiser cans and a gun-slinging Veep played full throttle by Raymond J. Lee with a Trump swagger. Hwang’s script never mentions Trump, but this is truly the first musical or play written for the Trump era. Leigh Silverman’s direction is bold and at times over the top, but she has superb staging that will make this production a Broadway Tony winner. At the end Xing and the fallen candidate take a walk on the Golden Gate Bridge as they sing "Happy Enough." They both discuss unifying China and the U.S. The Asian cast also includes Billy Bustamante, Kara Guy, Jon Hoche, Kendyl Ito, Austin Ku, Jaygee Macapugay, Daniel May, Paul HeeSang Miller, Kristen Faith Oei, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Geena Quintos, Trevor Salter, and Emily Stillings.
A recent study by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition says, “In 2015-16, only 4% of roles on New York stages went to Asian Americans”. This new production breaks that mold that many feel is a major step for Asian American theatre, but I see it as only a slight step in the right direction after all these years of non-color blind casting. In the final number the cast enters a strip down stage wearing their street clothes, no wigs or colorful costumes as the David Henry Hwang character ponders the American Dream, and what it means for the need of diversity.
After the run here at the SF Curran Stage, Hwang and his collaborators will work out the kinks before continuing to New York. “We’re kind of looking at the finish line, but we’re not there yet,” Hwang says. “Who knows what’s going to happen. One of the things that’s exciting and fun and scary about this point in the process is that it’s all wide open. Any ending to the story of this show is possible.” SOFT POWER - A Play with a Musical breaks many molds in American musical theatre and is sure to make history on Broadway. Next up at the Curran is opening of TAYLOR MACS HOLIDAY Nov 21 and the National Tour of DEAR EVAN HANSEN that opens December 5th. In the meantime, run to the Curran to see SOFT POWER it is a MUST SEE.
Center Theatre Group in association with East West Players
and the SF Curran Presents
A PLAY WITH A MUSICAL
by David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori (music and additional lyrics)
Directed by Leigh Silverman
Music director: David O.
Choreographer: Sam Pinkleton
Only Through July 8
445 Geary St., San Francisco
2 hours 30 minutes, one intermission
Tickets: $29–$175, sfcurran.com
Photos by Craig Schwartz Photography / Curran
David Henry Hwang's quotes from LA Times by LISA FUNG, and Curran Playbill
MAUREEN LEE LENKER Asian American Performers Action Coalition
HILLARY CLINTON SOFT POWER VIDEO CLIP
The cast of SOFT POWER
Billy Bustamante (Miss Saigon), Jon Hoche (War Horse tour), Kendyl Ito (Matilda tour), Francis Jue (M. Butterfly), Austin Ku (Chinglish tour), Raymond J. Lee (Groundhog Day), Alyse Alan Louis (Amélie), Jaygee Macapugay (School of Rock), Daniel May (Thoroughly Modern Millie tour), Paul HeeSang Miller (Miss Saigon), Kristen Faith Oei (M. Butterfly), Maria-Christina Oliveras (Amélie), Geena Quintos (Miss Saigon), Conrad Ricamora (“How to Get Away with Murder”), Trevor Salter (Here Lies Love) and Emily Stillings (The King and I).
The creative team includes scenic design by Tony Award winner David Zinn, costume design by Drama Desk Award winner Anita Yavich, lighting design by Mark Barton, sound design by Tony Award nominee Kai Harada, orchestrations by Drama Desk Award winner and Tony Award nominee Danny Troob, dance arrangements by John Clancy, music supervision by Chris Fenwick, music direction by David O, hair and wig design by Tom Watson, make-up design by Angelina Avallone and casting by Heidi Griffiths, CSA and Kate Murray, CSA. The dramaturg is Oskar Eustis. The production stage manager is David LuriePerret.
SONG CLIPS FROM SOFT POWER