Soft Power electrifies at the Curran

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The cast of Jeanine Tesori and David Henry Hwang’s Soft Power includes (from left) Kristen Faith Oei, Raymond J. Lee (obscured), Austin Ku, Daniel May, Geena Quintos, Jon Hoche, Paul HeeSang Miller, Jaygee Macapugay, Billy Bustamante (obscured), Maria-Christina Oliveras and Kendyl Ito. Below: (from left) Maria-Christina Oliveras (obscured), Geena Quintos, Billy Bustamante, Conrad Ricamora, Jaygee Macapugay, Jon Hoche and Daniel May in the production directed by Leigh Silverman and choreographed by Sam Pinkleton on stage at the Curran Theatre. Photos by Craig Schwartz

Remarkable. Inspiring. Hilarious. Moving. There aren’t enough descriptive words to fully express just how wonderful and fascinating and exhilarating it is to experience Soft Power the new musical by David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori now at the Curran Theatre.

Forget Go-Go’s pop musicals (sorry Head Over Heels). Hit the road, lame movie-to-musical adaptations (looking at you, Walk on the Moon). This is what it’s like to be in the presence of musical theater with bracing originality, thrilling artistry, abundant intelligence (and humor) and expert execution. Watching Soft Power feels important – it’s tremendously entertaining and thought-provoking, but it also feels somehow bigger than the average show. This stage contains a larger conversation about the musical theater form itself, our evolution as truly compassionate humans and about the state of our nation. This is easily the most important musical since Hamilton.

Describing Soft Power is challenging primarily because it has so much going on, which is one of its many charms. There are three main ingredients here: The King and I, Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign and China’s quest for “soft power,” which is the notion of ideas, inventions and culture that change the way people think.

This is also described as “a play with a musical,” and that’s appropriate because the musical that eventually transpires is dependent on the short play that precedes it. Once that musical arrives, audience members find themselves in high-concept territory because you’re not just watching a musical. You’re watching, essentially, a reversal of The King and I from the 22nd century. No more is the white lady in the foreign country taming the barbarians and teaching the king how to govern his own people. In this case, the cast is primarily Asian playing blonde, gun-toting Americans who are tamed by the kind-hearted Chinese guy, who also happens to fall in love with Mrs. Clinton.

Questions of appropriation and representation – those catch phrases that we hear so much about these days – are not merely asked here, they are considered and corrected and satirized. This is not a show that debates issues. It embodies them. It makes fun of them, pummels them, satirizes them, eviscerates them.

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This immersive 2 1/2-hour experience is filled with laughs and parody and homage, both in Tesori’s lush, gorgeous score, with its echoes of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Sondheim and so much more, as well as in Sam Pinkleton’s choreography with its pop-meets-de-Mille exuberance. Hwang’s book is sharp and pointed, but what’s so extraordinary about Soft Power is the way the show also works as musical storytelling. Just as one of the characters complains about the political incorrectness of The King and I she heaps praise upon that show’s beautiful score and emotional storytelling, or, as she describes it, the show’s “perfect delivery system.” You might not like aspects of King (like its caucasian perspective on Asian culture), but once the music starts, your heart surrenders. Something like that happens here. Tesori’s score, which is so wonderfully different from the superb work she created in shows like Caroline, or Change and Fun Home, bursts with life and humor and beauty. Hwang’s lyrics (with additional lyrics by Tesori) are direct and insightful.

Director Leigh Silverman manages the impossible here. She creates an emotional framework that allows Hwang and Tesori to careen all over the place while still creating characters and stories we care about. Just when it seems the musical will fully flip into full-on political buffoonery, we’re drawn back into human-scale emotion. And here’s another astonishing thing: everything here feels relevant, from the deconstruction of good ol’ American musical theater to the bashing of the television personality with all the bankruptcies who beat Hillary (he is referred to as the president or as “dear leader” but is never referred to by name). Silverman, Hwang and Tesori have taken our world – what feels like this exact moment – and turned it into art on a grand scale. How did they do that? When they get to the inspirational number at the end, it actually IS inspirational because it feels as if the actors are reaching down to your seat and offering you that little spark, that little push, that little reminder to keep going.

When Act 1 ends, and you’re thinking, “What in the world did I just see?” and then you consider this: “There’s no way Act 2 can continue on this tightrope. As with so many musicals, Act 2 will deflate the balloon.” But then Act 2 happens and it’s even better, and all those courageous leaps come together with emotional and intellectual pay-off.

Huge credit must go to the dynamic cast headed by Conrad Ricamora as our hero from China, Alyse Alan Louis as Hillary Clinton and former Bay Area stalwart Francis Jue as a playwright named David Henry Hwang. They are supported by an outstanding ensemble that can handle every tonal shift thrown at them and then some.

Set designer David Zinn, lighting designer Mark Barton and costume designer Anita Yavich bring clarity and humor to the stage as well and keenly differentiate between our real 21st world and the future musical world of the 22nd century. The flashy stage is often like the circus meets grand opera but with many, many, many more guns.

Soft Power (which can actually be defined by its title) makes it very clear that democracy may break your heart, but this brilliant show also has the very real power to restore your faith in art as reflection, renewal and, perhaps most importantly, revolution.

Jeanine Tesori and David Henry Hwang’s Soft Power continues through July 8 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $29-$175. Visit for information.

Talking the talk, or not, in Berkeley Rep’s Chinglish

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Alex Moggridge is an American businessman trying to work in China with expected and unexpected results in David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: Moggridge’s Daniel attempts to communicate with Michelle Krusiec’s Xi Yan during a private business meeting. Photos by

Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s season-opening production of Chinglish by David Henry Hwang presents the best possible circumstances to witness communication happening under the worst possible circumstances.

This is what you’d call a serious comedy, which is to say there are big laughs generated by a serious subject. That subject is, essentially, how hard it is for people to listen to and understand one another, and Hwang takes us into an extreme situation to demonstrate the many layers of communication.

American Daniel Cavanaugh (Alex Moggridge) is a Midwestern businessman trying to salvage his family’s sign-making business by making deals in China. He’s in Guiyang, a medium-size city hoping to make the Chinese/English signs for the new cultural arts center. His pitch is that local officials will want the translations to be accurate and not the kind of signage that causes laughter and fills websites such as There’s a lot Daniel isn’t saying about why he’s really in China, but it all comes out eventually.

He’s learning the ropes of doing business in China with the help of consultant/translator Peter (Brian Nishii), who claims to love China more than his native England and speaks Chinese better than some residents. The two make a dynamic team, but the intricacies of Chinese diplomacy, formality and subterfuge is something of a minefield.

Some of the two-hour play’s funniest moments happen during business meetings with the Minister of Culture (Larry Lei Zhang) when the Chinese officials are using their own translators, most of whom are just awful. We know this because all of the Chinese is subtitled and projected on the walls of the set. We can see just how mangled the language is, and that’s comedy (also thanks to the astute actors playing the terrible translators, Celeste Den, Vivian Chiu and Austin Ku).

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But even when the translators aren’t around and Daniel attempts to forge a relationship with the vice-minister of culture, Xi Yan (the gorgeous and astonishingly good Michelle Krusiec), the process of being understood is still laborious and underscored with the knowing laughter of frustration.

In this well-made play, Hwang keeps upping the stakes as we learn more about what’s really motivating the characters, and the romance he throws into the plot allows the second act to plumb some emotional depths and extend his observations on communication to include the complexities of spousal relations and how marriage is seen differently from Eastern and Western perspectives.

In director Leigh Silverman’s sturdy production, the laughs flow constantly, and the performances seem effortless, even as they straddle two very different worlds and languages. Set designer David Korins, re-creating the look of last fall’s Broadway production, deserves abundant credit for keeping things moving – literally. His set rotates and slides and moves with amazing efficiency as action shifts from an office to a restaurant to a hotel lobby to a hotel room. The set changes are thrilling to watch, especially when they’re injected with flashes of humor or action (just watch as characters navigate the giant moving pieces of the set, shifting from one location to another as if walking through real-world spaces).

The set’s machinations might be too much if the actors weren’t so fantastic. They refuse to let sliding pieces of furniture or realistic elevators steal focus from the business at hand. Moggridge is the ideal leading man here, naive (to a point) and honorable (to a point). He’s desperate and smart but also likeable and fallible. The captivating Krusiec is a great foil for him. Outfitted in Anita Yavich’s killer short skirts and heels business ensembles, she’s dressed to kill. Her brusque business manner leaves little room for humor, and yet she’s quite funny, especially as her armor falls (to a point).

The ending of Chinglish, part of a bookend presentation by Daniel to an audience isn’t nearly as sturdy as the play that has come before it. The play, full of punches and tickles and provocations, ends with a shrug, and that’s not nearly enough. Still, the crackling comic energy of the evening refuses to be diminished. Let there be no miscommunication here: Chinglish speaks the language of laughs, and that translates into a disarmingly delightful evening of theater.

[bonus interview]
I chatted with Chinglish playwright David Henry Hwang for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish continues an extended run through Oct. 21 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $14.50-$99 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit