Soft Power, Hard Landing | “Soft Power” @ Ahmanson

Soft Power (Ahmanson)Wikipedia defines the term “soft power” as:

…the ability to attract and co-opt, rather than by coercion (hard power), which is using force or giving money as a means of persuasion. Soft power is the ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction. A defining feature of soft power is that it is noncoercive; the currency of soft power is culture, political values, and foreign policies. Recently, the term has also been used in changing and influencing social and public opinion through relatively less transparent channels and lobbying through powerful political and non-political organizations. In 2012, Joseph Nye of Harvard University explained that with soft power, “the best propagandais not propaganda”, further explaining that during the Information Age, “credibility is the scarcest resource.”

American Musical Theatre has long been a form of soft power, of propaganda, of pushing western thoughts and ideas upon to other cultures. It has been a means of subtly advancing the notion that the West and White is right. This was true in the musicals of the 1950s such as The King and I and even My Fair Lady to current efforts such as The Book of Mormon. It was the intense … presumptuousness … of The King and I, combined with the growth of China as a superpower, that influenced writer David Henry Hwang to start the notion that led to his musical (excuse me, “play with a musical”) Soft Power that formally opens May 16 (and which we saw last night, May 12) at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB).

The trope in The King and I that caught Hwang’s attention was the notion of a White teacher coming into Siam, and through a relationship with the King, convincing them that their traditional ways are wrong and that western ways are better, and along the way using theatre to make fun of and denigrate that Siamese culture, all while winning a Tony award. Subsequent productions of The King and I around the world advanced these subliminal and subtle “West is Best” notions, and demonstrated the power of theatre and musicals — an American art form — to influence minds. This combined with a real life incident in which Hwang was stabbed in the neck while walking home in Brooklyn,  seemingly because he looked like an Asian delivery boy and wouldn’t complain to the police, to provide the basis for what became Soft Power.

Unfortunately, while the underlying notion of China wanting to improve its reception in the world-wide community through the exertion of soft power is an interesting one worth exploring, the execution in the play with a musical Soft Power at the Ahmanson lands with a thud, leaving audiences dazed and confused in a whirlwind of cognitive dissonance.  There are moments where the audience experiences feelings not unlike the opening night audience of Carrie, their jaws open in stunned amazement like the scenes in Springtime for Hitler at the sheer audacity of the production. This was a preview, and so things may change, but the presentation of the embedded musical needs completely different framing to be accepted by American audiences. Further, the ending is a complete whiplash, a stab in the neck (so to speak) that makes one go “WTF?”. As it stands currently, although some tweaks might be made, some fundamental rethinking of the approach and the presentation of the message is required if this “play with a musical” is going to have long term success.

Before I can attempt further analysis, let’s synopsize the show. Note that this is from memory, as there is no scene list nor song list in the program.

The show opens with David Henry Hwang (yes, the playwright) having a meeting with a Chinese media company about bringing a rom-com TV series set in Shanghai to both American and Chinese audiences. The Chinese executive wants changes in the story, which he feels reflects too much of an American view of China, and not the image China wants to present of itself and its values throughout the world. As an example, he objects to a reference to “a day with good air quality”, for it implies that there are days with bad air quality. The discussion then turns to the personal, where this producer Xue Xing, talks about his girlfriend Zoe and his wife back in China. They get together that night to see The King and I at the Ahmanson (yes, really, even though it actually played the Pantages) and then go to a Hillary Clinton rally. The girlfriend talks about The King and I as a message delivery system (ouch, sorry, I just got hit on the head with a hammer), while Xue talks about the craziness of the American electoral system. He notes that in China, elections aren’t necessary because the best person — such as Hillary — just gets appointed to positions of power. After the meeting, they watch the election returns and see Hillary’s loss. Xue returns to China, and Hwang to Brooklyn. Walking home, he is stabbed in the neck and loses consciousness, and apparently imagines the musical that is to occur.

It is now 100 years in the future, and China is remounting their worldwide successful musical about this incident, based on a biography written by Xue’s dauther, Jing. The musical starts with Xue leaving his daughter for America. Arriving at the Hollywood Airport, he is met by gangs of rappers, threatened with guns, and essentially mugged. Saved by his driver Bobby Bob, he is driven to Hollywood and Vine where he meets with DHH (Hwang) about producing the musical. They agree to meet again, at a popular American restaurant, McDonalds, where Hillary Clinton is having a campaign rally. During this rally, Hillary sings and dances in tights, and meets with Xue. He tells her she should win, how China supports science and fights global warming and for truth, and how she deserves to be General Secretary. Leaving the rally, Hwang gets stabbed in the neck and dies. When Hillary loses the election (obstensibly because she met with a Chinaman who endorsed her), all hell breaks lose. End Act I.

There’s also a number — I can’t remember whether it was Act I or Act II — with the Chief Justice singing about how silly the American primary and electoral system is.

Act II opens with a retrospective media panel in the future talking about this musical. It includes the children of the musical’s authors, Xue’s granddaughter, and a media professor from USC. When the Chinese presenters talk about this new artform and how it took the world by storm, the professor notes that it was invented in America. The Chinese note that the initial idea was American, but that was overly simplistic — after all, they wrote musicals about cats and singing lions — and that the Chinese improved the artform. The professor talks about how the presentation of America was incorrect and inaccurate, and the Chinese note that was the account in the book, and it must be correct. They then return with the musical, with Hillary sitting on the stage bemoaning her loss and eating pizza and Ben and Jerry’s. Xue comes to visit with her. She tells him that America has declared war on China, and he vows to go to Washington to make things right. Meeting with the new White House, which is festooned with Budweiser pylons, the Vice President and senior officials are singing and dancing a song titled “Good Guy with a Gun”. Xue convinces them to lay down their guns and create a new Silk Road under China’s leadership. Returning to Hillary with his success, he tells her that he loves her, only to have her reject him in favor of American values and “Democracy”. He returns to China. The closing scene in the “musical” is him in his hospital bed, relating the story to his daughter.

Suddenly, we return to the present and it is Hwang in the hospital bed, telling his story again. He points out how unrealistic is is, and suddenly the cast returns in street clothes singing about “democracy”. Curtain closes.

WTF?

While watching this, I started out thinking it was going to be OK. When the musical started, however, things went sideways and I sat there, mouth open and stunned. The sheer offense at the portrayal of America, the insulting nature of how Hillary was portrayed, the insulting attitude towards the American electoral system, the notion of singing and dancing and praising guns: it was just too much, too soon, and way over the top. Intellectually, I could see this as a direct parallel to how The King and I portrayed Thai culture and made fun of it. Emotionally, however, it is just as King and must have hit with Thai audiences. Upon reflection, the message was imparted; however, sitting in the seats in the Ahmanson, it didn’t work. Thinking about it makes me think of the lines from Urinetown: “I don’t think that many people are going to want to see this musical, Officer Lockstock?” “Why do you say that, Little Sally? Don’t you think that people want to be told that their way of life is unsustainable?” American audiences will not accept this portrayal of America as crime ridden, while people get stabbed in the street and left to die without health insurance, where we worship our guns and defend our ballot system even when it gives the wrong results. They will not see this as a future Chinese view of an American system that China views as inferior; they will view it as a direct commentary and reject it at the box office. Sledgehammers such as this rarely work in the theatre; points are made stronger by allegories such as Urinetown.

Another interesting compare and contrast is with the other recent juggernaut, Hamilton. Hamilton also comments on the American way and upon current attitudes towards the immigrant with a positive message and portrayal. It is successful precisely because of that. The negative mocking view of American political leaders in Soft Power will be treated as insulting by both Hillary and Trump supporters. The author misjudged, in my opinion, how this would land.

This brings us to the ending, which is a WTF? Suddenly, the whole cast is singing about “Democracy”, just as if they didn’t have faith in the message they were bringing, and had to reassure the audience. The story needed a different setup at the start to frame the musical, and a different analysis and denouement at the end to recast the musical and make a statement. Without that, the musical comes off like the Uncle Tom’s Cabin ballet in King and I, a misguided and pointless commentary on a system through different eyes.

We walked out of Soft Power thinking that it was a train wreck, yes, but trying to see how the train wreck differed from the crash and burn that was Love Never Dies at the Pantages. With LND, I opine, the flaw was fundamental: the notion that a rape occurred, and the Phantom escaped, for everything to happen again in Coney Island. The story should never have been done in the first place. With Soft Power, the underlying notion is a good one: China wanting to gain power by presenting itself in a different light through the American musical form. But the execution of the idea was what was flawed. Some subgroups in China, such as the Falun Gong, already exploit the American Musical Form for propaganda purposes through the Shen Yun shows. It doesn’t change opinion. China is much more successful wielding soft power throughout the world through their engineering efforts in Africa, through their manufacturing prowess, and through behind-the-scenes lending. A Chinese musical commentary on the weakness of American values would not be through the American musical form, and wouldn’t use the heavy-handed colonialism style of The King and I.

Musically, the score was not one of Jeanine Tesori‘s best. None of the songs were particularly hummable or memorable. There were no ear-worms as were inflicted by Love Never Dies. Perhaps the most catchy number was the most offensive one, “Good Guy with a Gun”. There were rock power ballads such as “Democracy” that came out of no place and didn’t fit musically. If the embedded musical was to be a Chinese developed musical — even in the future — the music would have had a Chinese cultural form and instrumentation to be accepted by Chinese audiences. It wouldn’t ape Western forms. Essentially, the music landed mostly with an equal thud, not making its point. Tesori can do better — look at the scores for shows like Fun Home as a good example, or Shrek, or Violet (which is just about to open at  Actors Co-op (FB)). Rethinking of the presentation and the music is needed, in this audience member’s opinion.

I think some of the blame here belongs with the Dramaturg, Oskar Eustis, of the Public Theatre. According to Wikipedia, the process of dramaturgy is “broadly defined as ‘adapting a story to actable form’. Dramaturgy gives a performance work foundation and structure. Often the dramaturg’s strategy is to manipulate a narrative to reflect the current Zeitgeist through cross-cultural signs, theater and film historical references to genre, ideology, role of gender representation etc. in the dramatisation.” In this case, the dramaturg should have recognized that the embedded musical was veering the production into a direction an audience would not accept, and that the musical forms used were inappropriate to the story being told.

Similarly, I think the director, Leigh Silverman, and the choreographer, Sam Pinkleton, did the best with the material they had. They tried to bring good performances to the actors, but the material was so over-the-top that any believably was lost, and the story framing was off so that the non-believability didn’t land either. The dances were entertaining, and appropriate to the scenes, but were completely incongruous, and inorganic to the story line. Again, the fault is with the story, I believe.

The performances, however, were strong. Particularly notable was Alyse Alan Louis (FB) as Zoe/Hillary, who blew the audience away with her singing on “Democracy”.  If I wasn’t so stunned by the audacity of the writing, I would have been cheering for the performance.  She got stuck with misguided characterization of Hillary Clinton, which she handled reasonably well. Her sitting on the edge of the stage eating pizza and ice cream, while singing, was a hoot.

Also strong was Francis Jue (FB) as DHH (David Henry Hwang). His role was more of a dramatic one, but he was believable as the playwright, and you couldn’t really ask for more than that.

As the main protagonist of the story, Xue Xing, Conrad Ricamora (FB) provided a non-caricatured performance in a clearly caricatured world. He handled the singing and the story quite well.

The remaining actors served as members of the ensemble and provided smaller character roles; a few had standout or solo moments in song (which the lack of a song-list in the program makes it difficult to highlight). The ensemble consisted of: Billy Bustamante (FB) [Xue Xingu/s], Jon Hoche (FB) [Tony Manero, Chief Justice]; Kendyl Ito (FB) [Jing]; Austin Ku (FB) [Bobby Bob]; Raymond J. Lee (FB) [Randy Ray, Veep, DHHu/s]; Jaygee Macapugay (FB); Daniel May (FB) [Asst Dance Captain]; Paul Heesang Miller (FB); Kristen Faith Oei (FB); Maria-Christina Oliveras (FB) [Campaign Manager]; and Geena Quintos (FB) [Dance Captain]. Of these, performances that stick in my mind include Ito’s Jing and her singing in the closing number, Lee’s Veep in the gun number, and Ku’s Bobby Bob, who was a hoot.

Swings and understudies were: Kara Guy (FB) [Zoe/Hillaryu/s]; Trevor Salter (FB); and Emily Stillings (FB).

The music in the show had a good sound, although it could use a hint of Chinese flavor in Danny Troob‘s orchestrations. The 22-piece orchestra, under the musical direction of David O (FB), consisted of  Alby Potts (FB) [Assoc Conductor, Keyboard];  Sal Lozano, Joe Stone, Jeff Driskill (FB), and Paul Curtis (FB) [Woodwinds]; Joe Meyer, Kristy Morrell (FB) [French Horns];  Dan Fornero (FB), Rob Schaer (FB) [Trumpets];  Robert Payne [Trombone, Contractor]; Amy WIlkins [Harp]Ken Wild (FB) [Bass]; Ed Smith [Drums]; Matt Ordaz [Percussion];  Jen Choi Fisher (FB[Concertmaster];  Grace Oh (FB), Rebecca Chung, Marisa Kuney (FB), Neel Hammond, and Mark Cargill [Violins]; Diane Gilbert [Viola]; and David Mergen (FB) [Cello]. Alex Harrington was the Associate Music Director. Chris Fenwick was music supervisor.

Finally, turning to the creative and production team. David Zinn‘s scenic design worked well to establish place and mood, although a few aspects were a bit overdone (although that might have been interpretation of the Chinese’s future’s lens). It was supported by Mark Barton‘s lighting and Anita Yavich‘s costumes. The lighting generally worked well to establish time and place; the use of red was particularly well done. Most of the costumes had a suitably Chinese feel to it, although there was one dress for Hillary that struck me as a bit odd. Tom Watson‘s hair and wig design was believable, as was Angelina Avallone‘s makeup. Kai Harada‘s sound design was suitably clear. Other production credits: Joel Goldes [Dialect Coach]; Joy Lanceta Coronel [Dialect Coach]; Steve Rankin [Fight Director]; John Clancy [Dance Arranger]; Heidi Griffiths CSA [Casting]; Kate Murray CSA [Casting]; David Lurie-Perret [Production Stage Manager]; Shelley Miles [Stage Manager]; Ellen Goldberg [Stage Manager]; David S. Franklin [Stage Manager]; Nikki DiLoreto [Assoc. Director]; Sunny Hitt [Assoc. Choreographer]; East-West Players (FB), The Curran (FB), and The Public Theatre (FB) [Assoc Producers].

Soft Power continues at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) through June 10. Tickets are available through the Ahmanson Box Office.  Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar. This show is clearly a work in progress, and for us, it landed with a thud. Still, it is an interesting attempt, and if you’re into interesting attempts, you might want to see it. Your mileage may vary.

***

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district (although, alas, they just announced they are going dark after Fringe), a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB), and the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

Next weekend brings Violet at Actors Co-op (FB).  The last weekend will hopefully bring a Nefesh Mountain concert at Temple Ramat Zion; the weekend itself is currently open.

June — ah, June. That, my friends, is reserved for the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB), including The Story of My Life from Chromolume Theatre (FB). You can find a detailed discussion of the Fringe schedule here. Right now, it looks like the following:

July will get busier again. It starts with the 50th Anniversary of Gindling Hilltop Camp, followed by On Your Feet at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The next weekend may bring Jane Eyre The Musical at Chromolume Theatre (FB) [although it is unlikely… Chromolume has announced they lost their lease and are closing, and that their Fringe show will be their last show … and hence, Jane Eyre may not happen and that weekend will be open]. The third weekend in July brings a Bat Mitzvah in Victorville, with Beauty and The Beast at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) that evening. The last weekend may be a Muse/ique (FB) show. August starts with Waitress at the Hollywood Pantages (FB).

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.

Share

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *