Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles, (213) 972-4400
Even in its muddled current form, Soft Power “might be the most creatively and intellectually ambitious musical of the year,” said Jordan Riefe in The Hollywood Reporter. Imagine Hillary Clinton belting out a song and twerking as she arrives at a 2016 fundraiser while riding on a giant Big Mac—and that the scene turns out to be part of a musical beloved in 22nd-century China but written after America’s collapse by a Chinese-American playwright who hallucinated the details after being stabbed in Brooklyn. It’s a “brilliant” concept that allows playwright David Henry Hwang to satirize America by satirizing how it might be seen in a future China, but the show is “occasionally hard to decipher.” Soft Power is young still, though. It moves to San Francisco next month, and Hwang will have a chance to work out the kinks and, with any luck, send it to Broadway.
However disorienting the play’s narrative framework, “there’s never a dull moment onstage,” said Charles McNulty in the Los Angeles Times. Conrad Ricamora plays Xue Xing, a Chinese producer who falls in love with Clinton and, as he builds a Hollywood studio that begins China’s ascent to preeminence as a cultural superpower, enacts a reverse King and I scenario by offering Hillary insights from the East on how to be a better leader. The score was written by Fun Home composer Jeanine Tesori, and the golden age–style musical numbers are delivered “with polish and pizzazz.” Ricamora’s plush voice could charm even the gun-toting American hooligans of Hwang’s hallucination, and Alyse Alan Louis’ portrayal of Clinton “balances fearless comedy with tender pathos.”
“It’s hard to say if Soft Power will have staying power,” said Maureen Lee Lenker in Entertainment Weekly. Possibly, the show is merely “a particularly incisive, trippy ride that has its finger on the pulse of this exact moment.” Right now, many of the Clinton campaign scenes “feel almost too painful and raw to engage with,” yet they might date quickly. But when Clinton sings that “Democracy will break your heart,” the sentiment echoes well beyond one pol’s Election Day loss. It helps that, apart from Louis, the entire cast is Asian-American, many of them asked to wear blond wigs in the scenes that satirize Asian perceptions of America. A democracy always risks bringing out the worst in human nature—bigotry, tribalism, greed—rather than the best. Hwang’s provocative political fantasia never solves that problem. “But that doesn’t mean it won’t break your heart and put it back together again while trying.”