Soft Power Review: David Henry Hwang’s Sly Reverse Chinese Musical about America

David Henry Hwang was attacked by an unknown assailant with a knife and nearly died. That experience, along with the playwright’s shock at the results of the 2016 Presidential election and his oft-expressed ambivalence towards the patronizing but gorgeous Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “The King and I,” all make their way into “Soft Power,” an unusual musical by Hwang and composer Jeanine Tesori that inventively and oddly presents the themes of East-West divide that Hwang has long explored in such works as “M Butterfly” and “Chinglish.” “Soft Power” is clever, highly entertaining, hilarious, in places downright inspiring, and chock full of stimulating intellectual, cultural and political argument that forces us to look at American society, and the very nature of democracy, in a different way. “Soft Power” is also, ok, confused….but not confusing.

The heart of “Soft Power” is a spoof of “The King and I” that reverses and updates the story so that the “king” is Hillary Clinton (Alyse Alan Louis) and the “I” is a Chinese musical  producer named Xūe Xíng (standout Conrad Ricamora, who was, in a delicious irony, one of the stars in the last Broadway production of “The King and I.”)  The reversal reflects Hwang’s irritation at such American musicals “where the white hero goes to some dangerous land and civilizes the backwards natives. The writers get all these details wrong. And the locals somehow speak with stupid accents — in their own country.” At the same time, though, such shows have such lovely music and touching moments that they make Hwang cry.

The David Henry Hwang who expresses these views is a character in “Soft Power,” portrayed winningly by Francis Jue. The first half hour of “Soft Power” is a set-up for the musical spoof to follow. Xue Xing meets with David Henry Hwang (called DHH in the program) in 2016 to entice him to write a musical for the Chinese market.  His idea is to use it as a vehicle to bring Chinese values to the world, which is what he says “soft power” means, and what the United States has done for decades through such “international products” as Catcher in the Rye and Saturday Night Fever.

DHH is going after their meeting to a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton, and so invites Xue along, where the Chinese producer gets to meet the candidate and get a selfie with her. The two men are both shocked when Hillary loses. Then DHH is stabbed….

“In the moment before I lose consciousness,” he tells us in front of the curtain, “a whole world passes before my eyes. I hear … violins?” – and the curtain opens to offer a musical from China’s point of view – which, like American musicals, shows Xue traveling to the dangerous land of New York, the details are all wrong (the Golden Gate Bridge is in New York), and the locals (Asian-American actors in blond wigs) all have stupid American accents, and carry guns. What follows is a mock razzle-dazzle em musical.  At “the most famous American restaurant of all” – a gussied up McDonald’s —  rolling-skating chorus boys deliver elegant burgers, while Hillary  dances for the voters in a sparkling red tuxedo pantsuit, which she strips off to reveal a skimpy Wonder Woman costume. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court explaining the electoral college system using a suspiciously all-gold ballot box.

Presumably, this has all been DHH’s hallucination brought on by blood loss.

Then , however, Act II begins with a panel by Chinese experts fifty years in the future, during the intermission of the 50thanniversary performance of “Soft Power.” The panelists describe it as a landmark in Chinese art, an example of a new type of theater invented by the Chinese — “’Shūo chàngjù’ — literally ‘spoken and sung drama.’” This very funny scene sharply satirizes Western paternalism towards Asian art by flipping it (“There were no American artists per se. Only native craftspeople.”)

But is this still DHH’s hallucination, or have we dropped that?  The context of the musical we’re watching becomes  unclear. And when the musical picks up again after the panel discussion, the parallels to “The King and I” seem dropped as well.

Soft Power’s creative team is well versed in the American musical form. Director Leigh Silverman (Tony-nominated for Violet, who has been at the helm of some 30 stellar productions Off-Broadway) has put together a fine production on the relatively small stage at the Public Theater. Tesori, Tony-winning composer of “Fun Home” and “Caroline or Change”, has composed 13 songs that range from beautiful ballad to comic hip-hop, lushly performed by a 22-piece orchestra in full view on multiple tiers above the stage. Choreographer Sam Pinkleton (Tony-nominated for Natasha Pierre) provides some expert moves for the performers, most of whom are Asian-American, many of whom are Broadway veterans, all of whom are first rate.

Yet, for all the experienced talent involved, “Soft Power” doesn’t feel like a fully realized musical (in the manner of, say, “The Book of Mormon,” which also includes a satire of “The King and I.”)  I doubt whether even the creative team of “Soft Power” could graph its plot.

This personally strikes me as an almost insignificant complaint in a show that, thanks to Hwang’s passion and sense of urgency, has the potential to change the way we look at the world, and at our own culture. “Soft Power” is at its most powerful when Xūe criticizes American society and democracy in ways that are frankly hard to refute. “Communism in China has raised hundreds of millions out of poverty. “But here in America, you have too much freedom,” he says to DHH in one of many such pointed observations. “You really believe your voting will force the rich to give up their money? Here, you cannot even force your mentally ill to give up their guns. “

Soft Power
at the Public Theater
Play & Lyrics by David Henry Hwang
Music & Additional Lyrics by Jeanine Tesori
Choreography by Sam Pinkleton
Directed by Leigh Silverman. Orchestrations by Danny Troob; music direction and supervision by Chris Fenwick; dance arrangements by John Clancy; scenic design by Clint Ramos; costume design by Anita Yavich; lighting design by Mark Barton; sound design by Kai Harada; sound effects design by Bart Fasbender; video design by Bryce Cutler; hair, wig, and makeup design by Tom Watson; special effects by Lillis Meeh; music contracting by Antoine Silverman; and additional orchestrations by Larry Hochman and John Clancy

Cast: Billy Bustamante (Xue Xing Standby), Jon Hoche (Chief Justice/Hāli Aòhālā/Ensemble), Kendyl Ito (Jing/Prof. Lǐ Bìyù/Ensemble), Francis Jue (DHH), Austin Ku (Bobby Bob/Jū Míng), Raymond J. Lee (Randy Ray/Yáo Tuō/Veep/Ensemble), Alyse Alan Louis (Zoe/Hillary), Jaygee Macapugay (Betsy/Lóng Lín Kūn/Ensemble), Daniel May (Ensemble), Paul HeeSang Miller (Ensemble), Kristen Faith Oei (Ensemble), Geena Quintos (Airport Greeter/Ensemble), Conrad Ricamora (Xue Xing), Trevor Salter (Ensemble), Kyra Smith (Ensemble), Emily Stillings (Swing), Emily Trumble (Zoe/Hillary Standby), and John Yi (Swing).
Running time: 2 hours including one intermission
Tickets: $105 to $150
Soft Power is on stage through November 10, 2019

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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