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Soft Power

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Soft Power is a satirical one-act play. And it’s a musicalized dream. It’s also a futuristic panel discussion where the subtext is far more interesting than the commentary. And, finally, it is all those elements refracted through a funhouse mirror and reinvented as a full-scale musical romance and political cris de coeur.

With Soft Power, Playwright/Lyricist David Henry Hwang and Composer/Lyricist Jeanine Tesori create a concept musical that is jaw-droppingly original. And that’s saying a lot when you consider their predecessors include such fascinating oddities as Love Life and Assassins. Not to mention the Lady in the Dark shift from reality to dream musical. Yes, I did manage two Kurt Weill references in as many sentences, but it’s the kind of show that invites such comparisons.

A playwright, who just happens to be David Henry Hwang (Francis Jue), is working with a Chinese filmmaker Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora) on a series that is unlikely ever to  be greenlit. It represents China’s desire to develop and expand their soft power, a term that describes the intellectual and cultural influence they wield in the world.

Hwang invites Xing to join him for the Lincoln Center revival of The King and I, which is also a fundraiser for presidential candidate, Hilary Clinton (Alyse Alan Louis). On his way home, Hwang is stabbed by an unknown assailant on the street, just like the real-life Hwang. From his hospital bed, he dreams a song and dance-laden version of Xing’s adventures in New York. The second act dares to go even farther afield and one keeps thinking, “This can’t possibly work.” But, somehow, it does.

Hwang’s book skewers musical theatre, consumerism, racism, sexism, and pretty much anything he finds offensive. His satire is neither sugar-coated nor polite. It is raw, unsubtle, and bracingly fervent. This is not a show for the Red States' crowd. Tesori’s eclectic score perfectly illuminates and amplifies Hwang’s intentions by crafting an aural American fantasia featuring riffs on Rodgers, Bernstein, and other musical theatre giants, as well as an amusing echo of Copland.

Leigh Silverman directs with a zany energy that captures the spirit of the show without losing sight of the serious underpinnings. She also manages to keep the numerous plot strands and various performance styles separate and distinct. Sam Pinkleton’s choreography is always in on the joke and revels in its nods to Busby Berkeley and cheesy television variety shows.

The three principals all give standout performances. The charismatic Ricamora impresses with his velvety vocals and by using every device in his considerable arsenal to make an essentially reactive character feel driven. He may make larger paychecks on TV, but Ricamora is a stage animal and a genuine Broadway leading man. Jue is deliciously animated and obviously enjoys playing his 21st Century American values off of his more reticent Chinese co-worker. Louis gives a galvanizing performance with forceful vocals and exuberant dance moves. But she just as compelling in her quiet moments.

Soft Power is messy, complex, blatant, and daringly original. Center Theatre Group and the other producers should be praised for having faith in the show’s creators and their vision. Is Broadway ready for Soft Power? Probably not. But I’d love for someone to prove me wrong.

Ahmanson Theatre    May 16 – June 10, 2018    CenterTheatreGroup.org

 

Spotlight

Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”

ABOUT ELLEN RICHARD

Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.