When the Trump administration cedes power on Jan. 20, 2021, David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s Soft Power will stand as a beloved cultural artifact of resistance, boldly and bravely performed during his disastrous term in office. This trenchant yet ultimately uplifting musical combines black comedy and political satire to combat the despair a certain segment of the population still feels about Hillary Clinton’s loss. Musically and thematically, the story takes its inspiration from the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic The King and I. But this time the love story is told from multiple points of view — not just the white colonizer’s.
Hwang introduces both acts of Soft Power with non-musical, comic asides. In the first act DHH (Francis Jue), a fictionalized version of the playwright himself, meets with Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora), a Chinese national and nascent Hollywood producer. On the eve of the 2016 election, Xing is giving notes on a spec script DHH has written for a possible TV series. This prelude segues into a musical after DHH attends a fundraiser for Hillary that Xing invites himself to, along with his American girlfriend Zoe (Alyse Alan Louis).
That fundraiser, the election results, and an equally shocking incident that the real Hwang suffered from are the fact-based events that he and Tesori transform into song-and-dance routines that blister and burn with an acidic verve. The ordinary reality of a business meeting gives way to a series of fantasy sequences. They’re reminiscent of the ones that occur in cartoons when a character gets bonked on the head and sees actual stars or a heart-shaped, hairy monster. In reality, Hwang was stabbed in the neck — in his vertebral artery, in fact —and almost bled to death. In Soft Power, the attack takes place on election night and it’s racially motivated. The daffiness that follows is tempered and grounded in our knowledge that Trump’s America is an intolerant, dangerous place.
The outsized dance numbers feature ecstatic choreography by Sam Pinkleton. They’re Busby Berkeley-like performances that amplify the absurdity of conservative ideologies and, in the wonderfully specific song “Election Night,” the electoral college that empowered the president. Songs like “Dutiful” and “Fuxing Park” are set to gorgeous orchestrations that enable the singers’ vocals to soar. Ricamora’s exquisite voice extracts meaning and emotion from every lyric he sings. His vocals are as comforting as the Obama presidency once was. As if by osmosis, he, like Obama, was able to confer a sense of peace and grace upon the true believers listening in the audience.
In “Fuxing Park,” Xing’s filled with pride over China’s achievements as he describes a park in Shanghai to DHH. Ricamora extends the notes of the adjective “green” the way a lark might if he were nestled contentedly in the foliage there. He stands with his feet firmly planted on the stage, holding his chest squarely out, bringing us along in his imagination for a stroll through a park on the other side of the world. Xing recalls his home with longing but he’s come to America in order to expand China’s “soft power” — a way of influencing other cultures through, in his case, the film and television industry.
Shortly after arriving at “Hollywood International Airport,” he’s taken to lunch at a gloriously stylized and outrageous version of McDonald’s. The scenic design by David Zinn recalls the wit and intensity of David LaChapelle photographs, the ones in which every color of the rainbow is represented and then turned up to maximum volume. Golden arches, purposefully cut off at the center part of the curving “M” — possibly to avoid a lawsuit — are set against an exuberant ketchup-red curtain at the back of the stage. Gaudy, bejeweled chandeliers adorn the heads of uniformed mannequins. Waiters wheel out on roller skates in short-shorts while a chorus of dancers shimmies and shakes.
Out of this extravagant, sardonic vision of a hamburger-lovin’ America, Louis re-enters the show. This time she’s not Xing’s girlfriend but a reincarnation of Hillary Clinton, confidently campaigning pre-election. At this quasi-McDonald’s, Louis delivers “I’m With Her,” a rousing opening number. It was the first, and not the last, of her performances that brought people joyfully to their feet. The song is a condensed version of all the optimism we felt for the candidate, all the faith we held in her abilities and in her vision of what America could become. Louis gets that we still want to believe in the daydream of her having become the first female president, even though we now know it was a lost cause. When the actress later performs a lament after the election, she’s also able to express a desultory tone of disbelief and exhaustion. Louis is a powerhouse singer who was able to wring catharsis from a moment that most of us would have liked to share in solidarity with the real Hillary.
In a recent interview with Stephen Gong, Executive Director of San Francisco’s Center for Asian American Media, Hwang said his initial pitch for Soft Power was a reverse King and I. “It Just Takes Time” is his reply to “Getting to Know You.” After the McDonald’s crowd disperses, Xing tries to teach Hillary how to say his name by demonstrating the various tones used when people speak Chinese. She mispronounces “Xue Xing” repeatedly, and to great comic effect, until she doesn’t. The song exemplifies what makes the musical moving and surprising. It reverses the narrative of, as Hwang puts it, whites being the “enlightened, civilizing” force as well as finding humor in a national tragedy that’s both political and personal. When the ensemble sang the heartfelt, stunning closer “Democracy”, Hwang and Tesori succeeded at giving the choked up audience what it needed most — hope.
Soft Power, Through July 8, at the Curran, 445 Geary St. $29-$175; 415-358-1220 or sfcurran.com/soft-power.