East meets West hilariously in ‘Soft Power’

David Henry Hwang’s new “Soft Power,” a fun, smart concoction — a musical within a play — satirically touches on timely and timeless political and cultural points. It’s a treat from start to finish.

Onstage at the Curran, the appealing mashup — with book and lyrics by the Tony winner for “M. Butterfly” and a terrific score by Jeanine Tesori (“Fun Home”) that joyfully references Rodgers & Hammerstein and classic musicals — tells a story of clashing cultures, America and China, and has a darling romance, too.

A hilarious and empathetic Hillary Clinton is brilliantly worked in.

DHH (Hwang’s alter ego played with a crisp conciseness by Francis Jue) is a successful Chinese-American writer in Hollywood, pitching a TV series set in Shanghai in 2016, showing the city, warts and all, to Xue Xing (an all-around appealing Conrad Ricamora), a Chinese producer in the U.S., who only wants to show its sunny side.

DHH tells Xue China will never gain the “soft power” — intellectual and artistic influence on the world, as opposed to military and economic might — that America enjoys, because its people are constrained by government and tradition.

Xue, a married man having an affair with the no-nonsense, articulate Zoe, a younger American woman (Alyse Alan Louis), doesn’t buy it, even after the three see a production of “The King & I.” Despite its distasteful cultural appropriation (a white Englishwoman telling the ruler of Siam how to run his country), they’re moved by its artistry.

After the show, they go to a Clinton campaign rally; Xue briefly meets the presidential candidate and is smitten, and later offers to DHH that perhaps his show could contain a “small” criticism of China.

That show doesn’t emerge, but what does is a full-blown musical that comes to DHH in a dream after he’s randomly attacked (based on Hwang’s real-life experience of being stabbed in the neck by an unknown assailant while walking down the street).

DHH imagines “Soft Power,” a Chinese musical set in 2016 America, with a Chinese hero, Xue, falling in love with candidate Clinton (the wonderfully versatile Louis again), which 50 years later becomes a beloved classic in Asia.

Some of the numbers are riotous: Xue steps off a plane into Hollywood, where everyone is blonde and shoots a gun; Hillary does a show-stopping, shape-shifting, get-out-the-vote dance on top of a giant burger at a McDonald’s; a judge explains America’s wacky (and unjust) electoral system; and after the unbelievable election, Hillary gorges on pizza and ice cream, while Xue visits the White House (the pillars are big Budweiser cans; the amusing scenery is by David Zinn), where the vice president (a funny Raymond J. Lee) and the ensemble wield machine guns.

Alyse Alan Louis, center, dances up a storm as Hillary Clinton. (Courtesy Craig Schwartz Photography)


Others numbers are sweet: Xue, leaving China for the U.S., saying goodbye to his young daughter; later, he teaches Hillary about tones in Mandarin and how to pronounce his name (shades of “My Fair Lady” and “The Sound of Music”).

The crowd-pleasing finish has Hillary belting the rousing “Democracy.”

Director Leigh Silverman and choreographer Sam Pinkleton (who cleverly employs hoedown and hip-hop) guide the cast through the shenanigans with savvy, aided by a welcome 22-piece orchestra led by David O.

REVIEW
Soft Power
Where: Curran, 445 Geary St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, 1 and 7 p.m. most Wednesdays and Sundays (no show July 4), 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; closes July 8
Tickets: $29 to $175
Contact: (415) 358-1220, sfcurran.com/soft-power

Leslie Katz

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