The Ahmanson Theatre has another hit on its hands! It’s at least the fourth wonderful presentation in a row, and that’s coming from moi, the harshest critic. And trust me, you do not want to miss this one!
I really didn’t know what to expect from the title Soft Power. I knew the cast was Asian, but, for some reason, I thought it had to do with utilities. (I know, I know–I have got to start reading those press releases!)
But I was, of course, all wrong. And I loved going on this incredible journey with the talented cast, and being totally awed at every turn.
This show is stupendous! It’s billed as “A Play with a Musical,” and…that’s exactly what it is! (But that designation, while creative and actually exactly spot-on, can ultimately work against them. If it goes to Broadway, which it should, and be nominated for Tonys, which it definitely should, which category will it compete in—Best Play or Best Musical??? I have the solution—both!)
It’s taken me awhile to publish this review because there’s no clear way to describe Soft Power, without telling the whole wacky story, which you know I never do. But even then you might not get it. It’s a wild ride, with clever surprise after clever surprise.
It’s written by the brilliant David Henry Hwang, who, as he’s done in the past with his other plays, puts himself into the show as a main character, played admirably by Francis Jue. (David sat right across the aisle from me on opening night, so it was fun watching him enjoy his own creation along with the rest of us. I assume it’s sort-of like when Mr. X used to watch my former TV show with me, and he often asked, “Getting a kick out of yourself, Kah?” And…I was!) I had reviewed Hwang’s play Yellow Face, when it opened at the Mark Taper Forum over a decade ago, and loved it, so I was already a fan.
Soft Power turns-out to be an ultra-political comedy. It’s mainly a send-up of China trying to gain a cultural influence over the world, (a move that’s dubbed “Soft Power,” hence the title of the show,) and sort-of about Hillary not winning the election, and sort-of about what has happened to America under creepy Trump, although, thankfully, his name is never once uttered. And there are slight undertones of The King and I. But that’s all I can tell you about it. Trust me–you really need to see this uber-fun show for yourselves. And be prepared to be wildly entertained.
Soft Power is filled with one ingenious line after another. I hardly stopped laughing all night, which is quite the rarity. (One theatre PR person even once accused me of “flat-lining” during his what-he-thought-was-funny play!) There are so many facets to this show! It’s hip and modern, and even makes mention of my beloved hometown, Brooklyn, which always makes me happy. It actually has everything; there’s even a bit of rapping.
The most amazing thing is that, since it’s mainly based on the 2016 United States Presidential election, (with “Hillary Clinton” being one of the three lead characters,) Mr. Hwang had to write most of it recently. That makes this show extra admirable because we aways hear how it takes people decades to write a show like this! (And get it produced, so thank you, Ahmanson, for bringing us the World Premiere so quickly!)
To have the musical be within the play is very inventive because if the whole show were just a plain musical, reviewers might skewer it because it’s so campy, with no memorable songs. (I wouldn’t have, because I loved just about everything about this entire production; I’m talking of other critics.) I feel that it would probably be successful as a specific musical unto itself, but it definitely works better in the framework of letting us know what’s happening in the world that leads to Hwang’s character’s “dream,” which the musical part is. (I told you it’s hard to describe!) Some of the music is excellent, (which I guess is to be expected since it’s written by Tony award-winning Jeanine Tesori.) The non-jokey song, Isn’t This Love,* is genuinely beautiful, and worthy of being in a romantic full-on Broadway musical. [*At least I think that’s its name—the program does not contain a list of the numbers.]
I cannot comment on the true quality of the songs because I was taking it all as the comedy it is meant to be, rather than as a distinct musical. But I fully enjoyed it all. No number inspired me to jump up and cheer for it, but it far from bored me. I liked it all; I just didn’t leave the theatre singing any of it. But I don’t think that’s the purpose of this music to begin with; I see it as purely to make us laugh.
And here’s a miracle for a show I’m reviewing—no one in the cast annoyed me! At all! That might just be a first.
The star, Conrad Ricamora, really pleasantly surprised me; his performance in Soft Power is so nothing like what he does on How To Get Away With Murder! Of course I know that no two characters in any actor’s career are the same, (unless you’re John Wayne,) but he’s such a different person here. I had met him briefly about a year and a half ago, and I didn’t even realize in person that he’s so tall and manly. He easily commands the stage here. And I absolutely love his soothing speaking voice, which sounds nothing like it does on that TV show. His singing is lovely, as well.
I do applaud the performance of Alyse Alan Louis as Hillary Clinton, because it’s a lot of work, and the opening night audience was very appreciative of her efforts. But she left me wanting so much more out of that star-turn role. Her singing and dancing is good enough, but neither skill is better than par. The whole time I kept picturing what Sutton Foster would have done with that role. She would be perfect! (If the show goes to Broadway, which it definitely should, maybe they can get her.) [Note: I feel bad saying that, but you know I always tell it like it is.]
David Zinn’s set is perfect–simple in places, and adorably kitschy when warranted. And I adore how at least one scene ends, with the set closing to a small square and then disappearing, as I’ve seen on some old TV shows and films. That effect thrilled me in person!
As dizzying as grasping every little nuance of Soft Power is, the only thing that really confused me was that the program says the “musical” portion of the “play” takes place in the 22nd century. But an ersatz panel discussion on it, which opens the second act, makes mention of that it’s fifty years after the 2016 election, which would make it 2066, which is still the 21st century, isn’t it? I always have a problem with math being wrong, (mine as well as that of others,) and it would usually distract me for the rest of the show. But Soft Power is so fascinating at every turn that, for perhaps the only time in my life, I let that discrepancy go! (Will wonders never cease?) [Note: Please feel free to correct me if my math is wrong. I mean it!]
So I suggest that every single one of you go see Soft Power, either in LA or wherever it travels. (San Francisco is next, and I’m hoping it makes it to Broadway after that. But then what’s to become of Conrad? HTGAWM shoots here in LA, so, unless they kill him off, which is always a possibility with that nutty show, I don’t see how he can be on both coasts at the same time.) Just definitely see it before the next election.
Soft Power running through June 10, 2018
Ahmanson Theatre 135 N. Grand Ave. 213-972-4400 www.CenterTheatreGroup.org