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There is a moment in “Soft Power,” the new “play with a musical” which premiered this week at the Ahmanson, when the disquiet hits you. The show has a lovely time acknowledging musical theater tropes, discussing the power of the musical to slowly convince people of an idea (this is what “soft power” is – gradual bending of minds), and expressing the outrage and increasing xenophobia which accompanied the 2016 election. However, it is also using that very soft power to behave like a propaganda machine. You become enthused, then disturbed by the fact you have been gently manipulated toward that very enthusiasm.
Which may be the point. David Henry Hwang, the remarkable Chinese-American playwright, and Jeanine Tesori, whose “Fun Home” was a highlight of the last Ahmanson season, have created a subtly complex theater piece in the guise of something far lighter.
As has been true in the past, Hwang makes himself a character in the piece – an American writer trying to work with Xue Xing, a television producer from The People’s Republic of China, without much success. The things which keep them at odds have a lot to do with differing views of family responsibility and love. In the midst of their attempted collaboration, Hwang, Xing’s American girlfriend Zoe, and Xing go to see “The King and I” and to a rally for Hillary Clinton. Only Xing, by line-jumping, actually gets to meet her, and even take a selfie.
Shortly after, a near catastrophe takes Hwang into a dream world. This dream is the musical, detailing how Xing would recount this episode of his life in later years, complete with a lot of spin. It is charming, tossing in all kinds of homages to the American musical form (including even the idea of using a dream sequence to advance the story).
In it, Xing and Hillary have a far less fleeting moment. She is seen as a commodity marketing herself in ways Miley Cyrus would approve of, and Xing’s condescending view of democracy seems underscored by the 2016 election outcome. Indeed, Hillary is herself romanced – at least for a while – by the description of order and intelligent leadership Xing presents as an alternative.
As Hwang awakes from this dream, he must wrestle with the images it carried. Though dealing with the rising xenophobia around him, he rises to a hopeful, emotionally satisfying musical conclusion. To an audience in California, where 2/3 of the voters picked Hillary and were as appalled as those onstage with the final results, this is an easy sell. Almost too easy. Songs bring people to their feet, exactly as they are expected to. Oh, how easily we are swayed.
Still, there is the fear, even in the show, that Xing’s version of events will win out, and as playwright Lillian Hellman pointed out in 1934, a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth. It is this which one should actually be wrestling with here.
In the process, however, one finds a clever script filled with high humor and the occasional low comedy, and with music which resonates after the curtain falls. A highly versatile cast makes this extremely episodic and somewhat fractured story work.
Most particularly, Francis Jue gives Hwang the tone and aspect of the wry observer, who must in the end come to wrestle with both truth and hope. Conrad Ricamora gives Xing a vibrating confidence which makes his message all the more powerful and his humanity all the more charming. Alyse Alan Louis, as the progressive Zoe and the dream Hillary, finds a humanity in both even as her portrait of the former candidate must by the very nature of this piece be completely over the top.
A remarkable ensemble brings all the other characters to life, from stuffy old-boy senators, to Chinese media stars, American street hoods, and Hillary campaign supporters. Perhaps the most pointed standout is Kendyl Ito, whose portrait of Xing’s daughter provokes great laughter of recognition simply by body language. Still, there is no weak link in the entire cast.
Director Leigh Silverman has used David Zinn’s mobile set pieces to keep this rather various and deeply episodic piece flowing, funny, and consistently engaging. Choreographer Sam Pinkleton creates a sense of culture and space, while offering strong nods to the musicals this piece honors as much for their ability to sway as for their art. The costumes of Anita Yavich, with hair by Tom Watson, allow the quick shifts in ethnicity, age and status. Music supervision by Chris Fenwick continues the polish
Indeed, this is all done very, very well. Which is the most unnerving. From the start “Soft Power” is out to display the ability of song, which goes to the heart without necessarily passing the head, to instill belief systems, and create rallying cries. And it does.
What: ‘Soft Power” When: through June 10, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 pm. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with an added 2 p.m. performance Thursday, June 7 Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave in the Music Center, downtown Los Angeles How Much: $30 – $130 Info: (213) 972-4400 or www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
There is a moment toward the end of a favorite documentary where people who grew up in the then-segregated African-American neighborhood around Central and Slauson in L.A. talked about the loss of that neighborhood with regret. Entrance into the mainstream was great, they say, but they lost those close knit community ties. I could not help but think of this while watching Lauren Yee’s funny, insightful “King of the Yees” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. Only this time, the community beginning to fray was, and is, San Francisco’s Chinatown, with its antique buildings and firmly held traditions.
Indeed, focal to the entire piece is the impressive, beautifully carved, red door of the Yee Family Association, of which Lauren’s father in the play is the president. That door, situated center stage, represents the Chinatown which the onstage Lauren sees as archaic and dissolving. Or does she.
In this world premiere, what begins as a standard “let me tell you about my father and my heritage” play soon takes a far more engrossing, positively Thornton Wilder-like turn. Hovered over by this very traditional, and apparently powerful door, one ends up touching on several elements of the modern Chinese-American (and larger Asian-American) experience with wit, a certain mysticism, and an underscore of hope.
Central to the piece are the performances of Stephanie Soohyun Park as Lauren and Francis Jue as her father Larry. The other cast members, Rammel Chan, Angela Lin and Daniel Smith provide a wide range of other characters, from actors to mystical persons, which pepper this engrossing journey.
Jue brings to Larry a balance of confidence and apparent innocence, tonally idealistic yet rooted in the practicalities of his supposedly insular world. This provides the perfect foil to Park’s crispness as her character’s assimilated Americanism bounces against the traditions of her childhood. The chemistry between the two creates a specific energy which powers the rest of the piece.
And that “rest” also proves engrossing, from discussions of the stereotypes demanded of Asian actors, through an examination of ritual and connection, to a brief, humorous window on the secret world beneath the touristy elements Chinatown presents to the world. The play proves, all at the same time, goofy, tender, pointed, illuminating and tremendously fun to watch.
Director Joshua Kahan Brody keeps the production’s pacing necessarily crisp, creating the quick transitions between thoughts and characters so needed in a play this potentially convoluted, allowing the audience to follow along with ease. Another star has to be Mike Tutaj, whose projections (along with set designer William Boles’ big red door) stir the mysticism, and (along with Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design) add to the comedy.
Still, all of these arrive in service of a fine play. Yee has the ability to make pointed, apparently autobiographical commentary in a way which enriches, entertains, and affirms. This play never talks down to those for whom the conceptual details are new, and manages – at least in this production – to find a common ground in the ongoing American discussion of the balance between keeping one’s own cultural heritage and becoming, if not part of a “melting pot,” at least one flavor in the tossed salad that is this country at its best.
What: “King of the Yees” When: Through August 6, 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 8:30 p.m. Thursdays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City How Much: $25 – $70 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org