Saturday, June 23, 2018

'Soft Power' a big hit at the Curran

DHH (Francis Jue, center) talks to his friend Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora, left) at an elegant 22nd century McDonald's.

Those roars rising from the Curran are reactions to “Soft Power,” the David Henry Hwang play with music and some lyrics (in addition to Hwang’s) by Jeanine Tesori.

Set in Hollywood in this century before advancing to Shanghai about 100 years from now, it’s full of issues that have evoked enormous concern in this country, especially in liberal areas like San Francisco.

It all starts with a writer called DHH (Francis Jue plays this stand-in for Hwang) working with a Chinese studio head, Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora), on a TV show to be set in China.

Since it’s shortly before the 2016 election, they go to a Hillary Clinton (Alyse Alan Louis) fundraiser at a theater where “The King and I” is playing. Xue meets her on his own, and the two click.

After the election, Xue has a hard time understanding democracy, saying the Chinese system is more efficient.

Then DHH is stabbed near his home in Brooklyn (such an attack actually happened to Hwang), probably by a racist. He goes to the hospital and has a dream about a Chinese musical, “Soft Power,” based on his experiences. Soft power refers to a country’s culture, art and ideas as opposed to the hard power of its military might and economic strength.

This musical is shown in Act 2, which takes place in the 21st century, when it has become a Chinese classic and China has superseded the United States in soft power after being mostly its equal in hard power.

This is where it resonates so strongly with songs like “Good Guy With a Gun,” taking place in the White House and satirizing America’s permissiveness about guns.

It also imagines a relationship between Xue and Hillary and includes a short dance just like the one for Anna and the King of Siam (“Shall We Dance?”) in “The King and I.”

As directed by Leigh Silverman, the show fields a triple-threat cast of mostly Asian Americans who act, sing and dance well (choreography by Sam Pinkleton).

Alyse Alan Louis reappears as Hillary Clinton in a 22nd century musical.
The songs are terrific, too, such as Hillary’s “Song of the Campaign Trail,” which brought the opening night audience to its feet at the end of Act 1.

Music director David O conducts the large orchestra. Chris Fenwick is music supervisor.

The show is full of laughs, many of them emanating from the current political climate.
David Zinn’s set facilitates easy scene changes. One of his more impressive coups is the elaborate McDonald’s, which has become the best restaurant in Los Angeles in the 22nd century.

Costumes by Anita Yavich, lighting by Mark Barton and sound by Kai Harada add to the enjoyment.

This world premiere is co-presented by the Curran and Center Theatre Group, which staged it in Los Angeles in May.

Assuming it goes on to Broadway, it’s sure to be a strong contender for Tony Awards.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “Soft Power” will continue through July 8 at the Curran, 445 Geary St., San Francisco.

For tickets and information, call (415) 358-1220 or visit

(Photos by Craig Schwartz Photography)