At the start of the second act of Soft Power, one character posits that the way art works is by “capturing truth through imagination.” It’s meant as a winking joke about cultural appropriation, hyperbole, and the power of fictional narratives, but it also cuts through to the exact purpose of Soft Power itself, a musical within a play that seeks to capture something heartbreakingly true about America and democracy through outlandish imaginings.
Soft Power, now making its world premiere at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, is almost impossible to describe. It’s so meta it will send your head spinning. One of its main characters is David Henry Hwang, the playwright and co-lyricist of the show (portrayed by Francis Jue). It’s nigh impossible to tell what is truth and what is fiction in the frame story of Hwang’s interactions with a Chinese movie producer, Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora), and a racist knifing that sends an ER-bound Hwang into the fever dream that is the musical Soft Power. It’s tagline is “a play with a musical,” which is an accurate summation of The Wizard of Oz-like structure of the Technicolor musical wedged between the bookends of a harsher, sepia-toned reality.
If that’s not meta enough, the production also centers on the 2016 election, and Hillary Clinton (Alyse Alan Louis) is one of the musical’s main characters. The frame story finds Xing attending a production of The King and I at the Music Center (he cries at “We Kiss in a Shadow,” which fittingly was sung by Ricamora when he portrayed Lun Tha in the 2015 Lincoln Center revival). Soft Power, the musical within the play, takes The King and I as loose inspiration with Chinese businessman Xing advising and falling in love with Clinton to help her become a better leader (Anna and the King in reverse) — there’s even a brief waltz! Is your brain totally scrambled yet?
As an idea, Soft Power is a heady concept unlike any musical in recent memory. Its execution is something messier and more human, with genuine flashes of brilliance. Ricamora is a revelation as Xue Xing, mastering both the pragmatic remove of the frame story’s heavily accented producer and the romantic leading man of the central musical. His velvety voice is the perfect match for Jeanine Tesori’s lush, complicated melodies. Xing’s inner battle between his Chinese instincts to save face/maintain dignity and his desire to give in to a once-in-a-lifetime love lend the play its heart. Ricamora paints this struggle with a nuanced brush that at turns present Xing as dutiful, heartsick, wryly comic, and more. The actor best known for his role as HIV-positive tech whiz Oliver on How to Get Away With Murder, but Soft Power gives him room to breathe and showcase his deep well of talent, which includes serious vocal chops, a lithe grace, and a capacity to switch from deep longing to pitch-black satire on a dime.
The play/musical tries to tackle everything from the folly of choosing duty over love to global politics to cultural appropriation to American exceptionalism to quandaries like gun control and the nonsensical nature of the Electoral College. It’s a lot to take in, and some subjects are tackled more successfully than others. Soft Power, the musical within the play, is a brutal and brilliant spearing of cultural appropriation and the tendency to see outsiders and other nations as barbaric or dangerous. It tells the story of Xing, a Chinese movie producer who comes to Hollywood and finds America a Mad Max-esque hellscape, where danger and firearms lurk around every corner and McDonald’s is considered fine dining. What the show does most effectively is force audiences to grapple with assumptions and dig beyond surface-level cultural analysis: A panel of academics and creative types that kicks off the second act skewers art that steals from other cultures to paint a highly stilted, stereotyped picture of a nation or group it doesn’t really understand.
The play also engages directly with of-the-moment politics. Xing meets Clinton, a razzmatazz version of the presidential candidate who, in exasperation, gives up on facts and intricate diplomacy to quite literally twerk for votes. It’s played for laughs, but is also a horror show — an on-the-nose estimation of the sexism and reality-star antics that defined the 2016 election. Some moments, such as a lyrical explanation of the Electoral College, are hilarious, witty explorations of an arcane system, while others (nearly every moment with Clinton) feel almost too painful and raw to engage with, like rubbernecking at a car accident from inside the smashed-up vehicle.
For many, the true measure of great art is its ability to both speak to the present moment it is created in and to present a deeper, more universal theme that will endure and resonate 50 years down the line. It’s hard to say if Soft Power will have that staying power or whether it’s just a particularly incisive, trippy ride that has its finger on the pulse of this exact moment. Choosing to make Hillary Clinton a character makes for some truly wince-inducing moments now, but it also raises the question of whether the play will pack the same punch in the years to come.
Yet there are many pieces that offer more than the gonzo archness of an edgier Saturday Night Live sketch. Clinton sings, “Democracy will break your heart,” and heartbreak is the central theme of the show — the heartbreak of the ballot box, of choosing duty over love, of racism, sexism, and the truly gut-wrenching upset of the yawning gap between the promise of the American Dream and its reality. This is best realized in the cast itself. Excepting Alyse Alan Louis, who portrays Clinton, the entire cast is Asian American, donning blond wigs frequently to portray an overly tanned, satirical take on “America.” It takes up disgraceful traditions of yellowface and whitewashing in the American theater to turn them on their head.
In the final moments, the entire cast takes to a stripped-down stage wearing street clothes, sans wigs or ornate costumes, as the David Henry Hwang character muses on the American Dream, what it means to be an outsider, and the heartbreak of democracy. It’s the most powerful moment in the proceedings, allowing you to at last take in this sea of Asian American performers, something that still feels shamefully radical in 2018. (In 2015-2016, only 4% of roles on New York stages went to Asian Americans, according to a study by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition.) It’s the American Dream in action, being realized by a group of performers who have just spent the evening delivering a provocative, head-spinning political fantasia.
In the end, Soft Power’s individual strokes of genius are greater than the sum of its parts as it grapples with issues perhaps too big to ever be consolidated into a 2.5-hour musical. It’s sort of like the America it presents to audiences: a beautiful, provocative, profound, messy creation with no real solutions, whose reality is perhaps not as satisfying as its concept. But it doesn’t mean it won’t break your heart and put it back together again while trying. B+