Sunday, July 15, 2018

Review: ON YOUR FEET! Will Have You On Your Feet!

Mauricio Martinez and Christie Prades. All photos by Matthew Murphy

Those of us who lived in Miami in the 1980s know firsthand the phenomenal rise of Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine. They were already hometown favorites prior to the release of “Conga” but, when that song hit, it changed everything. You couldn’t go to a club on South Beach or turn on a local radio station without hearing the upbeat dance song, and you couldn’t stay in your seat once it started playing. It was a joyful dance call to action, a rousing anthem to get up and get out on the dance floor regardless of age, ethnicity, or ideology. Those opening three notes – D D# E minor – had power, and it was impossible to resist them.

You could “name that tune” (as the old ‘70s TV show challenged) in only three notes, two if you were paying attention, but their record label wouldn’t even produce it because the lyrics were in English. They were already stars in the Latin music world but, in typically shortsighted fashion, their producer scoffed at the group’s desire to crossover into American pop music. Still, Emilio Estefan knew it was a hit and in a quintessential grass roots campaign, he took the song to every public party and outing possible to prove it.

Mauricio Martinez, Christie Prades and Devon Goffman

The milestone is captured in the Act I finale of On Your Feet!, a vivacious bio-musical based on the lives of Emilio and Gloria Estefan, in a montage that shows them performing “Conga” at a Bar Mitzvah, an Italian wedding, and a Shriner’s convention before Phil (Devon Goffman), their producer, finally sees the song’s wide appeal. The scene closes on a high note as the actors’ conga line spills down into the aisles from the stage of the Hollywood Pantages Theatre, where the touring production is currently playing, picking up audience members as it dances its way to the lobby with a 1-2-3-kick.

The Estefans’ story is a natural fit for the jukebox musical format and is packed to the brim with chart-topping hits like “Turn the Beat Around,” “1-2-3,” “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” and “Get On Your Feet,” the song that inspired the show. It follows both their professional and personal life, from Cuba to Miami and the early days of Emilio’s Miami Latin Boys, to their slow burn of a romance which took two years to finally ignite.

Conflict comes from within Gloria’s own family as her mother Gloria Fajardo (Nancy Ticotin) remains the lone holdout against her daughter pursuing a career in music. As a young girl, she too had dreams of being a singer but when her father refused to let her sign a contract to become the Spanish voice of Shirley Temple, she was devastated.

L-R: Joseph Rivera, Adriel Flete, Jeremey Adam Rey, Nancy Ticotin
and Hector Maisone

We see, in a flashback to her last club performance in Havana, that her mother was a talented singer who would quite possibly have become a star in her own right, had it not been for the Cuban revolution. But, when Castro seized power, her husband saw to it that she, little Gloria, and Gloria’s grandmother Consuelo (Debra Cardona) were able to escape the country, even though he could not leave, and her dreams as an artist came to an end. Ticotin transfers all her fire and passion into the role displaying a spicy temperament grounded as much in a mother’s fierce love as it is in a lingering unhappiness at the opportunities denied her.

As Gloria, Broadway understudy Christie Prades lights up the stage. She isn’t a sound-alike for the iconic singer but there are moments when you’d swear she’s the real thing. Her endless energy and natural innocence captures the appealing essence of the superstar making it easy to fall in love with her. Mauricio Martínez (NBC Universo’s TV series El Vato), who plays Emilio, is all charm and tenacity as he spits out the unique speech pattern of the brains behind the Estefan empire, a source of much humor in the show. Plus, the pair has the kind of chemistry that makes their long, slow attraction pay off when romance finally blossoms.

Christie Prades, Mauricio Martinez and cast

In Act II, the timeline jumps to 1990 and the horrific bus accident that could have left Gloria paralyzed, were it not for her determination to not end up in a wheelchair like her father who suffered from MS in his later years. Things turn sentimental when she sees her father and grandmother in a dream while unconscious and Emilio pours out his heart in the emotional “Don’t Wanna Lose You Now.” Once she regains consciousness after her back surgery, there is reconciliation with her mother and painful physical rehabilitation. Six months later, she makes a triumphant return to the stage at the 1991 American Music Awards, singing “Coming Out of the Dark.”

Bookwriter Alexander Dinelaris (who won an Academy Award for the film Birdman, but is also credited as the writer of the less fortunate The Bodyguard Musical) necessarily shortcuts events in the interest of time, but most of the show’s best moments take place within the songs.

Director Jerry Mitchell and choreographer Sergio Trujillo ratchet up the emotional impact with a cavalcade of Cuban dance rhythms, festive concert performances, and heart-driven ballads that will leave you wanting more. You’ll get an exciting addendum in the encore medley of songs at the end of the end of the show that includes reprises of several upbeat numbers plus “Turn the Beat Around” and “Everlasting Love” so dont leave early.

Christie Prades, Adriel Flete and the cast

The touring design is awash in the colors of Cuba and Miami Vice pastels, making it as visually stimulating as is the sound of the music (costume design by Emilio Sosa, scenic design by David Rockwell, lighting design by Kenneth Posner). And happily, the fantastic orchestra includes five members of the Miami Sound Machine, including musical director Clay Ostwald. They open the show so don’t be late. It’s quite a moment and you don’t want to miss it.

If ever there was a story that epitomizes the fulfillment of the American Dream through hard work, dedication, and sheer determination, it is On Your Feet! I’ll never forget seeing Gloria Estefan on her concert tour after the accident. The titanium rods implanted in her back had given her the support to heal and left her with ramrod straight posture. They swung her out over the audience on a lift and we were dumbstruck by how effortless she made it look, even after all shed been through. 

What a gloriously inspiring way to leave a legacy.

ON YOUR FEET
July 6 – 29, 2018
Hollywood Pantages Theatre
6233 Hollywood Blvd.
Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90028
Tickets: 800-982-2787 or www.hollywoodpantages.com

The company of the national tour of On Your Feet!

Adriel Flete and Mauricio Martinez


On  Your Feet! Band featuring members of the Miami Sound Machine:
Clay Ostwald (music director/keyboard), Jorge Casas (bass), Edward Bonilla
(percussion) and Theodore Mulet (trombone)

(center) Christie Prades, Jordan Vergara and Mauricio Martinez

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Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Get Ready for ANNIE at the Hollywood Bowl

Kaylin Hedges and David Alan Grier

Get ready musical lovers – everyone’s favorite singing orphan is coming to town and she’s taking over the Hollywood Bowl! ANNIE, the Tony Award-winning musical by Charles Strouse (music), Martin Charnin (lyrics) and Thomas Meehan (book) will play three performances July 27, 28 & 29th and is directed by Tony Award-nominated Michael Arden, conducted by Todd Ellison and choreographed by Eamon Foley. Every night is a great night at the Bowl and this one is sure to please the whole family.

Kaylin Hedges stars as the comic strip character brought to life whose optimism turns the tables on Miss Hannigan (Ana Gasteyer) and her cronies “Rooster” Hannigan (Roger Bart) and Lily St. Regis (Megan Hilty), while serving up some of the best classic musical theatre songs ever written.

“You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile,” “It’s a Hard Knock Life,” “N.Y.C.” and “Tomorrow” are just a few of the gems you’ll hear from the cast of Broadway and television personalities, which also includes
David Alan Grier (Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks), Lea Solanga (Grace Farrell), Steven Weber (Franklin D. Roosevelt), Ali Stroker (Star-to-Be) and Amir Talai (Bert Healy).



Tickets are available on the Hollywood Bowl’s website HERE so get ready to have a little fun on “Easy Street” or at least enjoy an easy night out celebrating summer at the Bowl. Its one of the great joys of living in L.A! 

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Sunday, June 24, 2018

Review: Reprise 2.0 is Back in the Musical Business with SWEET CHARITY

Krystal Joy Brown, Laura Bell Bundy, and Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer.
All photos by Michael Lamont.

When Reprise! Broadway’s Best closed its doors in 2012, musical theatre lovers heaved a collective sigh. The resident company at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse had gained a reputation for producing outstanding performances of classic musicals featuring stars from the worlds of live theatre and television, similar to those done by Encores! in New York. Everyone felt the loss.

Now, after a seven year hiatus, the company is back with a new name – Reprise 2.0 – once again led by producing artistic director, Marcia Seligson. Met with an overwhelmingly positive reception on opening night, it proved how happy the community is that Reprise is partnering with UCLA’s School of Theatre, Film and Television to again celebrate a shared love of musicals.

As its first production of the season, Seligson and her artistic staff have chosen a sparkling sixties classic by Cy Coleman (music), Neil Simon (book) and Dorothy Fields (lyrics) – Sweet Charity – that follows the mishaps of an optimistic but unlucky in love dance hall hostess named Charity Hope Valentine.

The musical is based on Federico Fellini’s 1957 Italian film Nights of Cabiria, which starred his wife Giulietta Masina, and was originally adapted as a musical by Bob Fosse for his wife Gwen Verdon. Shirley MacLaine famously played the role in Fosse’s film version of the musical.

Laura Bell Bundy and Robert Mammana

Reprise’s production stars Laura Bell Bundy (Broadway’s original Elle Woods in Legally Blonde) in an eternally-perky performance that doesn’t lack for enthusiasm but that proves a little too daunting for the singer’s stamina.

The rehearsal period for these more modestly staged presentations is shorter than for a full production of the show so a great deal is packed into a short span of time. That may be why  Bundy had difficulty controlling her voice during the performance. By the time she got to opening, she’d already blown it out and was unable to observe dynamics or reach the notes in her higher range. As if to compensate, she puts on an ear-to-ear grin and assumes an “aw shucks” self-deprecating manner that essentially turns the luckless leading lady into a bimbo in a giant Shirley Temple wig.

It’s problematic because Simon’s dated book is already difficult to stomach. Charity is of an era where double standards for men and women were acceptable, and a woman was defined by her relationship to, or the absence of, a man, as well as by her perceived purity. But times have changed and the dialogue, as written, is definitely passé.

Terron Brooks and the ensemble

Luckily, director Kathleen Marshall has choreographed dance numbers that are lively and full of effervescent charm, particularly the large ensemble numbers, “Rich Man’s Frug” and “Rhythm Of Life,” which capture the essence of Fosse on an abbreviated scale. The former is a stylized party sequence divided into three distinctly different parts (The Aloof, The Heavyweight and The Big Finish), and the latter is a crazy hippie revival that resembles a psychedelic acid trip. If you’ve never seen Sammy Davis, Jr. as Daddy Brubeck, Google him and watch it on YouTube. It’s fantastic. For Marshall’s production, it is a fabulous Terron Brooks who plays Daddy, a hep cat who leads a church service of questionable intent where the neurotic Oscar (Barrett Foa) takes Charity on their first date.

In one of the best songs of the night, Charity’s pals Nickie (Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer) and Helene (Krystal Joy Brown) give the musical some good old guts and honesty in their duet “Baby Dream Your Dream” as they imagine the possibilities of life outside the dance hall knowing full well their pipe dream may never come true. It’s a welcome dose of truthful artistry in a production that spends  most of its time selling itself as a frenetic song and dance show built on splash rather than depth.

Jon Jon Briones with Laura Bell Bundy, Barrett Foa and the cast

Their boss, a wonderfully flippant (and underused) Jon Jon Briones as Herman, turns “I Love To Cry At Weddings” into an upbeat comic going away party for Charity, who looks like she just might have a happily ever after, after all, by the end of the story. Alas, it is not to be, as Oscar, like many a schmuck before him, dumps her in the park where we first met her and she’s once again on her own.

Music Director/Conductor Gerald Sternbach leads a 14-piece onstage orchestra from the piano that sounds great playing Coleman’s score. They’re nicely highlighted in full view on scenic designer Stephen Gifford’s streamlined stage, which uses projections to communicate where scenes take place, and lighting by Jared A. Sayeg and Brian Monahan to define the space within each locale.

If you can look past the dated story line, or are a fan of Ms. Bundy, you’ll likely love Reprise’s presentation of Sweet Charity. We’re certainly glad to have the company back as part of the L.A. theatre season and look forward to their upcoming productions of Victor/Victoria starring Carmen Cusack directed by Richard Israel and choreographed by John Todd (September 5 - 16), and Grand Hotel – The Musical directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman and choreographed by Kay Cole (October 24 - November 4).

SWEET CHARITY
June 20 – July 1, 2018
Reprise 2.0 at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse
Macgowan Hall, 245 Charles E Young Drive E
Los Angeles, CA 90095
Tickets and more info: www.reprise2.org

Laura Bell Bundy and Barrett Foa

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Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Review: A CABARET to Chill You to the Bone

Alex Nee (center) and the cast of Cabaret

Kander & Ebb’s political musical Cabaret captures a horrific period in history. Set in 1929-1930 as the Nazis were coming into power, it is an unsparingly direct window into the deterioration of a country systematically brainwashed by the lunacy of a madman. It could never happen here, right? But history has a way of repeating itself, particularly when lessons have not been learned, and Celebration Theatre, director Michael Matthews, and the entire company of Celebration’s revival of Cabaret have one word for the audience – #Resist – or suffer the consequences.

The original source material is Charles Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical novel Goodbye to Berlin, which was later adapted for the stage by John Van Druten as the Broadway play I Am a Camera. But, unlike a camera that photographs what it sees without opinion or judgement, leaving it up the viewer to interpret, Matthews has constructed a pressure cooker of a show, using it as an allegory of our own American political journey. The way he ties Cabaret’s Emcee to the message is equal parts disturbing and beautiful. From the initial picture that opens the show to the final monstrous ending image, this one will chill you to the bone.

Alex Nee is the dirtiest Emcee in recent memory. He’s the kind of strung out character you don’t want to stand too close to, for a variety of reasons. A demonic presence given to frequent ferocious outbursts, he is the product of a frightening time, and Nee invades this world with all the harsh superiority of an animal ready to pounce. It is strong character work that delivers on the promise Matthews makes at the top of the show and doesn’t let up until the final curtain.

Into this lair comes a naïve writer (Christopher Maikish as Cliff) who experiences Berlin much like Isherwood did in the ‘30s. He’s passing through, drinking from a cup he has no idea will poison him in the end. A chance meeting with a businessman (John Colella as Ernst) on the train lands him at the Kat Kat Klub where another chance meeting with a neurotic nightclub singer, Sally Bowles (Talisa Friedman), and their subsequent romance, opens his eyes to the bitter realities he’s been oblivious to.

Alex Nee and the ensemble

One choice that is rarely made for Cabaret is to cast singers and dancers who don’t look and sound like typical musical theatre performers. Matthews’ ensemble has a degenerate edge and it works really well for his concept. The voices are rougher and pushier, the choreography more manically driven by inner angst than by a need for every move to be executed in perfect alignment.

Don’t get me wrong – the dancing is terrific but, this time, I believe that the girls are down-and-outs that Max, the club owner, found in back alleys and compromised rooms. I believe that he’s bedded them all and each is here because life has dealt them a bad hand with no hope of trading it in for something better. Choreographer Janet Roston gives the production a physical language through dance and movement that outwardly reflects the ensemble’s collective rage as well as their reckless abandon when it comes to scratching the itch of the flesh.

It fits remarkably well on Stephen Gifford’s extraordinary set, which feels like the kind of extravagantly appointed cabaret club you’d find within a dying bordello. The ingenious part is how much he packs into the space: a jewel box stage within a stage, surrounded by audience, designed upward to invoke high ceilings, balcony façades, an orchestra loft, a diorama-like cutout insert for exterior scenes that take place beyond the confines of the club – and all of it done with Gifford’s uncanny ability to make it look effortless…and in a space that should not humanly be able to contain it all.

It’s a bit like the optical illusion of an empty room that looks small but, when you move in and furnish the darn thing, it all of a sudden seems to have gotten bigger. Sometimes less is more but, in this case, more is everything, and the fabulous detail of what he has created thrusts you into the Weimar era the moment you walk into the theater.

Here’s how versatile it is – lighting designer Matthew Brian Denman adds a single light to the set in exactly the right place and now you have a train. He creates a perpetual haze that permeates the club like a smokescreen to deflect attention from the world outside, and there are times Denman makes the stage look as menacing and visually rich as a Fritz Lang film.

L-R: Christopher Maikish, John Colella, and Talisa Friedman

Musical director Anthony Zediker sets a crisper than normal pace with the band, which works to the show’s advantage in close quarters. It also plays against the heaviness of the story by lifting the humor, moving the action along, and allowing the big showstopper ballads to strike with more weight.

Still, the show isn’t without its blemishes. Dialects are inconsistent and some of the performances don’t quite land. Herr Schultz (Matthew Henerson) sounds more like a guy from the Bronx in Guys and Dolls than a German Jew and making Fraulein Kost (Katherine Tokarz through 7/15) pregnant weakens Sally’s big reveal. Cliff’s energy should be in direct contrast with the rest of the characters but a handsome Maikish leads with his earnest musical theatre presence rather than trusting it isn’t necessary. Colella portrays Ernst as neither outwardly threatening nor quietly sinister.

Casting Fraulein Schneider (June Carryl) as a woman of color however adds a wonderfully new layer to the character. Her moral dilemma becomes even more poignant when we see the extent of what it will cost her. It’s all in the eyes.

Now, more than ever, Cabaret serves as a call to action. The time for good people to do nothing is past and Celebration Theatre is sounding the alarm in as loud a voice as possible. #Resist  

CABARET
May 25 – July 15, 2018
Celebration Theatre
6760 Lexington Avenue, Hollywood, CA  
Tickets: (323) 957-1884 or www.celebrationtheatre.com

Talisa Friedman (center) and the cast

Christopher Maikish and Talisa Friedman

Christopher Maikish and June Carryl

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Thursday, May 31, 2018

THE COLOR PURPLE Sounds the Clarion Call to Arms

Carrie Compere, Adrianna Hicks and the cast of The Color Purple
All photos by Matthew Murphy

That joyful noise you hear coming from the Hollywood Pantages Theatre this month is the thrilling sound of female empowerment, and it is reverberating like thunder from the heavens in the dynamically robust national tour of The Color Purple.

Director John Doyle’s Tony Award-winning reinvention of the musical - which took Broadway by storm in 2015 - rings like a clarion call to arms for every woman who’s ever been violated, abused, or otherwise kept down by a man, and, on opening night, the powerful women heading the cast proved themselves more than ready to lead the charge.

Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and the subsequent Steven Spielberg film starring Whoopi Goldberg are the basis for the musical, which takes on a renewed directive in the face of today’s #MeToo and “Time’s Up” movements. And while real change happens in fits and starts, women are collectively circling up to protect their own, putting on notice anyone who still thinks domination without consent is okay.

Carla R. Stewart (Shug Avery), Adrianna Hicks (Celie) and Carrie Compere (Sofia)
and the cast of The Color Purple

To her credit, Marsha Norman’s book doesn’t shy away from the hopeless resignation in Walker’s novel, or from the undercurrent of violence that ran through the Deep South during the first half of the twentieth century when the story takes place. To the credit of the rest of the musical’s creative team, neither do they.

What they have done is strip down the story to its essence, consciously exposing the emotional trauma of a life with few choices and a long road to hoe without padding the production with extraneous departures.

Celie (Adrianna Hicks) is forced to marry a man who thinks she is ugly by a father (J.D Webster) who has impregnated her twice and separated her from her babies. Her sister Nettie (N’Jameh Camara) runs away to escape sexual assault by both her father and Celie’s husband, Mister (Gavin Gregory). Sofia (Carrie Compere) suffers vicious consequences for merely speaking her mind within a society that demands she play by white rules meant to keep black people down. Shug Avery (Carla R. Stewart) knows her physical assets will fade in time so the singer drinks to keep the good times rolling and to postpone the inevitable a little while longer.

As each woman asserts herself within the context of her own set of circumstances, the audience urges her on with ardent applause and stirring callouts of unity. It is a wondrous night at the theater to witness the strength in such connection. Go, if you’ve never seen this musical and go if you have. Go, if you want to feel the power of theatre to move an audience. Bottom line - just go.

The cast of The Color Purple

The production is set on an almost bare stage, backed by three towering abstract wooden panels stacked with tear-away boards and rustic chairs used as props by the actors. The staging is often presentational, creating pictures that seem suspended in space, neither time-specific nor detail-driven. What resonates always is a powerful well of emotion underscored by some of the best musical theatre belting you’ll find in town right now.

The score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray traverses the Blues/Pop/Gospel globe of the rural South, igniting a fire of defiance in songs like Compere’s ballsy “Hell, No!” and Hicks’ exhilarating ‘declaration of independence’ showstopper, “I’m Here.” Stewart lets it all hang out in a titillating gin joint performance of “Push da Button” and a trio of church ladies (Angela Birchett, Bianca Horn, and Brit West) will not be ignored. Every single woman in this cast is a powerhouse with something to prove and the amount of soul they put into their vocal work alone is a lesson in stepping up and standing out.

The cast of The Color Purple

Contrast that with the sudden cool breeze of the title song or the tenderness of “Too Beautiful for Words” and the emotional journey in this climb out of the shadows is as satisfying as it gets.

Following its run at the Hollywood Pantages, The Color Purple will move to Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, June 19 - 24.

THE COLOR PURPLE
May 29 - June 17, 2018
Hollywood Pantages Theatre
6233 Hollywood Blvd.
Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90028
Tickets: 800-982-2787 or www.hollywoodpantages.com

June 19 - 24, 2018 
Segerstrom Center for the Arts
600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Tickets: www.scfta.org
For more info about the tour visit www.ColorPurple.com

Adrianna Hicks

L-R: N’Jameh Camara, Bianca Horn, Angela Birchett, and Brit West 

Carla R. Stewart and Adrianna Hicks with the cast of The Color Purple

Gavin Gregory (Mister) and J. Daughtry (Harpo)

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Saturday, May 19, 2018

Review: New Musical SOFT POWER Smashes Conventions

Conrad Ricamora and Alyse Alan Louis
All photos by Craig Schwartz Photography

Playwright David Henry Hwang and composer Jeanine Tesori are pushing buttons and challenging conventions with their new work, Soft Power, now in its world premiere at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre. Commissioned by CTG for its 50th anniversary season and produced in conjunction with East West Players and The Curran in San Francisco, it has been described as both a play with a musical and a musical within a play.

I see it a little differently, rather as a musical with two unconventional prologues – a 20-minute expository prologue at the top of the show and a 10-minute commentary that prefaces Act II.

The former starts in 2016 with a Hollywood meeting between Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora), a Chinese producer, and DHH (Francis Jue) – standing in as the playwright in one of many meta twists – the most famous Chinese writer at the time. DHH has written a television pilot set in Shanghai that Xing wants to produce but, before he signs off, he wants a few changes.

Conrad Ricamora and Francis Jue

The big sticking point is in DHH’s depiction of Shanghai, which leads them to a discussion of the merits of soft power, a country’s method of exerting influence by attraction rather than force. DHH favors a realistic portrayal of the city but Xing prefers a more carefully constructed version of the truth that shows China in the most favorable light, much like he says the United States presents itself. Each makes his case but they are unable to come to an agreement until DHH suggests casting Xing’s girlfriend, Zoe (Alyse Alan Louis), in the show.

Cut to later that night, downtown Los Angeles at the Music Center after a performance of The King and I, where a Hillary Clinton fundraiser is taking place. Xing and Zoe debate the differences between, and benefits of, democracy vs. communism and Xing’s heady response to the musical they’ve just seen. Zoe is emphatically explaining that musical theatre is the best emotional delivery system ever when a Hillary sighting prompts an admiring Xing to rush to meet her.

Then it is election night and, in two harrowing twists, Mrs. Clinton loses, and DHH is stabbed in the neck while walking home, another plot twist born from a similar event that actually happened to the playwright. As one theatrical world gets ready to morph into another, we hear the first clashing warm-up notes of the orchestra. Suddenly, we are smack dab in the middle of a musical fever dream, and, while DHH is unconscious, everything that has taken place up until now becomes the basis of a Chinese musical fantasy. 

What happens during that first 20 minutes is pretty dense storytelling so be prepared to dive in and go with it rather than try to figure out how all the pieces are going to fit together. They do, but if you spend your time analyzing it against traditional musical theatre construction as it unfolds, instead of experiencing it for its own unique structure, you risk discounting its innovation without cause. 

From this point on, the writers and their ingenious director Leigh Silverman, begin to send up love and romance, politics, the United States’ opinion of itself, how our country is seen by others around the world, and a whole list of well-known musical theatre-isms those familiar with the genre will particularly enjoy.

Conrad Ricamora and Kendyl Ito

Miss Saigon has its helicopter. Soft Power has its airplane, and it descends from the rafters in all its massive glory as Xing, the star of this reverse King and I story, prepares to fly to Hollywood Airport, America.

There he’s greeted by all manner of American stereotypes from shoot-em-up cowboys straight from the O.K. Corral to West Side Story’d street kids twerking in hip hop hyper-drive. A bully named Tony Manero (Jon Hoche) bears a striking resemblance to Biff in Back to the Future and the Golden Arches of McDonald’s are glorified in a Broadway showstopper that introduces none other than a singing and dancing Hillary Clinton (also played with verve by Louis).

She makes her grand entrance atop a giant quarter pounder executing Sam Pinkleton’s showgirl choreography that includes disco, tap, karate kicks, a sexy Fosse-esque trio, a kick line, and a circus-style bit balancing French fries on her forehead. By the time she reaches her final costume reveal (there are a number of layers each one-upping the last) and finishes in a Wonder Woman superhero bodice, it’s clear that nothing is going to be sacred in this musical nightmare. The creative team’s work is sharp, on point, and set to stun. David Henry Hwang is on fire.

Alyse Alan Louis (center) with L-R: Francis Jue, Conrad Ricamora, Austin Ku, Raymond J. Lee,
Jaygee Macapugay, Billy Bustamante, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Geena Quintos, Paul HeeSang
Miller, Jon Hoche, Kristen Faith Oei, Daniel May and Kendyl Ito

Jeanine Tesori’s score is a marvelously layered concoction that draws from both east and west influences. I am in awe of the way she can create a 4-note melisma on the word “green” when Ricamora sings about the trees in “Fuxing Park” that instantly, and ever so delicately, transports the listener to Shanghai, and then tweak it later to alter its sensibility. The blistering book and lyrics by Hwang (with additional lyrics by Tesori) are filled with an enviable abundance of zingers that slap you upside the head at every turn.

Whether he is maneuvering the cast and orchestra through a big bombastic musical statement or a quiet intimate realization, musical director David O’s dexterity in bringing the score to life is vividly on display. The sound is lush and the expert vocal work leaves nothing wanting.

Ricamora, a favorite on the ABC television series How to Get Away with Murder, has a beautiful voice and is so grounded in his dual roles that it anchors this whirling dervish of a show and keeps it from spinning out of control. His is a richly detailed portrayal filled with subtlety and unwavering honesty. Jue narrates, leading the audience through this most unique story with an almost bewildered grace, and Louis is sensational in her politically-charged, outspoken roles delivered with non-stop Energizer Bunny gumption.

L-R: Raymond J. Lee, Jaygee Macapugay, Austin Ku, Kendyl Ito and Jon Hoche

The shorter prologue to Act II serves a dual purpose: to get audience members back in their seats and to reveal that the musical we have been watching is taking place fifty years in the future. Soft Power has become part of the enduring lexicon of musical theatre history and a panel is discussing the show’s cultural impact on its 50th anniversary. In yet another example of how Hwang is holding a mirror up to the audience to give context to how Asian culture has long been appropriated, a lone white panelist tries to set the record straight when the other Asian members reframe the American impact of the show to fit their preferred reality. It’s been happening in the reverse for years.

There are musical and lyric references to “Trouble” from The Music Man that Tesori and Hwang have turned into a “problems” sequence (hilarious), and Pippin moves that appears in the satirical “Good Guy with a Gun” number (performed with gusto by Raymond J. Lee and a first-rate ensemble). A La La Land Fred and Ginger duet set against the Hollywood night sky (yellow dress included), a big Rent finish à la “Seasons of Love”, and Anna and the King’s waltz in The King and I all get their moment. Even the eleven o’clock number is spoofed in Hillary’s eleven o’clock number, “Democracy.”

The visual contrast between worlds is heightened by scenic designer David Zinn’s use of bold color and brash oversized set pieces. The giant rolling burger, gold-encrusted statues with bright chandelier headpieces, that amazing plane, and the massive Budweiser cans that form the pillars of the White House are all whip-smart decisions meant to provoke an instant response from the audience. Costume designer Anita Yavich’s roller skating waiters in short burgundy rompers comically add to the lavish joke.

L-R: Conrad Ricamora, Austin Ku, Francis Jue, Geena Quintos, Billy Bustamante
and Raymond J. Lee 

It takes an incredible amount of work to create a new musical, and to dream up one that is different from any other musical already written is an even more complicated developmental process. The blood, sweat, tears, and years that go into it are not for the faint of heart. And if, by some chance, you do create something truly unique and it actually gets to opening night, there’s still no guarantee of success. That’s why it is especially exciting to see a new musical like Soft Power that fearlessly breaks the mold, smashes conventions, and sets out to turn the genre on its head. It dares to think beyond the content, form, structure, and politics of the past and envision something unique. For me, that is always a big deal.

From here, Soft Power will move to The Curran in San Francisco presumably with additional shaping, as it eyes a future run on Broadway. Catch it while it’s here in Los Angeles. It’s definitely one you won’t forget.

SOFT POWER
May 3 – June 10, 2018
Ahmanson Theatre at The Music Center
135 N. Grand Avenue
Los Angeles, CA  90012
Tickets: www.centertheatregroup.org

L-R: Maria-Christina Oliveras (obscured), Geena Quintos, Billy Bustamante, Conrad
Ricamora, Jaygee Macapugay, Jon Hoche and Daniel May

L-R: 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

The cast of Soft Power in  the"Democracy" finale

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