Monthly Archive for: ‘June, 2018’

Two musical comedies explore dreams and ethnicity

Conrad Ricamora (center) stars as Xue Xing in “Soft Power” along with Alyse Alan Louis as Hillary Clinton. Photo by Craig Schwartz Photography.

“Soft Power” and “School of Rock,” two current musical comedies in San Francisco, are as diverse as Alexis de Tocqueville’s idealistic “Democracy in America” and any book about a wannabe rock star.

But, I believe, both the pseudo-intellectual former andthe latter, immeasurably more visceral, are worth catching.

“Soft Power” gestated in Chinese-American playwright David Henry Hwang’s mind as “‘a play with a musical’ that puts a fresh spin on ‘The King and I,’” — according to Carole Shorenstein Hays, head of the SHN theatrical producing company and owner of the Curran Theatre where the unique show is running.

It morphed into much more, however.

Now it experimentally toys with reality vs. fantasy, via the immediate U.S. past and a Shanghai future 50 years hence, while wrapping a political cloak around a satire of classic Rodgers and Hammerstein compositions.

“School of Rock,” a fixture on Broadway since 2015, is more traditional, melodically and in storyline — in the vein of a 1964 off-Broadway mythic musical, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” It sparkles with the fresh energy of a dozen talented child actors and musicians I thoroughly enjoyed watching (despite the show’s predictability).

Both two-hour-plus entertainments have large amounts of humor tucked in, “Soft Power” emphasizing verbal gags that sometimes made me cringe because they flirted too closely with uncomfortable truths, “Rock” specializing in less heady physical silliness.

“Soft Power” bases its narrative on a fictionalized view of Hwang, who wrote “M. Butterfly” and a “Flower Drum Song” revival as well as this polemic about the survival of democracy and China’s cultural influence over the United States.

With a cast that of what Hwang labels “19 Asians in whiteface and blond wigs.”

And scenes that range from glitzy production numbers to emotional solos on a bare stage.

Francis Jue depicts an impish Hwang (who also wrote the lyrics for “Power”), but the leading character is really a concocted producer, Xue Xing, effectively played and sung by Conrad Ricamora.

Yet Alyse Alan Louis steals the world premiere with her booming voice and sly portrayal of Hillary Clinton.

The plot highlights twists: a fantasy glimpse of the producer’s romantic fling with Hillary and a retelling of a real-life incident in which Hwang was attacked with a knife solely because of his skin-color.

Humorous elements in “Power,” which has a Broadway run in sight, include White House columns consisting of Budweiser cans and Hillary stripping down to Wonder Woman garb and twerking on a Big Mac.

Songs composed by Tony winner Jeanine Tesori — none of which led me to leave the theater humming — include the amusing “It Just Takes Time” (in which Hillary learns to pronounce the protagonist’s tongue-twisting Chinese name), the rousing, sardonic “Good Guy with a Gun” (replete with rifles), and a moving Sondheim-esque duet, “Happy Enough.”

Accompanied by a 22-piece orchestra buried deep in its pit.

Rob Colletti (center) stars as faux teacher Dewey Finn in “School of Rock.” Photo by Matthew Murphy.

“School of Rock,” meanwhile, was modeled on the 2003 film starring Jack Black and features more than a dozen new songs by the Great White Way’s top money-maker, Andrew Lloyd Webber, who, as with previous creations like “Cats,” “Phantom of the Opera,” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” supplies one incredibly memorable tune — the iconoclastic anthem, “Stick It to the Man.”

The show’s choreography is noteworthy in that it consists mainly of kids bouncing up and down with arms outstretched as if doing calisthenics.

The production is also a study in political correctness, showcasing gay parents and an interracial family, while paying homage to the need to nurture previously unheard kids and help them find their voice.

The casting director and her team, by the way, purportedly “looked at 22,000 children” between the ages of 9 and 12 before selecting the ones used for the initial Broadway staging.

Still, the touring company of “Rock” now ensconced at the SHN Orpheum Theater rests contentedly on the shoulders of Black facsimile Rob Colletti, who plays wannabe star/identity thief and faux prep school teacher Dewey Finn with unstoppable zeal.

I happened to see “Rock” the same day this week I watched “Power.” I was glad I’d scheduled it that way because the optimistic former erased many distressing feelings the latter stirred up because of the state of our federal government — even though Donald Trump is never mentioned by name.

“Soft Power” will play at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco, through July 8. Information: 415-358-1220 or “School of Rock” will play at the SHN Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco, through July. 22. Information: 888-746-1799 or

Contact Woody Weingarten at voodee@sbcglobal.netor at

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