The new collaboration between playwright David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly, Yellow Face) and composer Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home, Violet) is being billed as a “musical-within-a-play,” but that mild description doesn’t begin to aptly capture the fever dream that is Soft Power. Now receiving its New York premiere at The Public Theater, the show tackles East-West relations, the failings of American democracy, the last presidential election, the “problematical” aspects of the classic musical The King and I and the near-fatal real-life stabbing of Hwang. Oh, did I mention the singing-and-dancing Hillary Clinton and musical number in which the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court explains the intricacies of the Electoral College?
If your response to that last entry is to sigh, “Finally,” then this musical (sorry, musical-within-a-play) — a co-production with the Center Theater Group, which premiered the work last year at Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theatre — may be for you. There’s certainly no faulting the show for lack of ambition, but for all the frequently dazzling intellectual and theatrical showmanship on display, the evening never coheres in satisfying fashion. The show frequently strikes its targets, but only by spraying so much satirical buckshot that some of it is bound to hit.
The piece is narrated by DHW (Francis Jue), a stand-in for the playwright, who, shortly before the 2016 presidential election, meets with Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora, How to Get Away With Murder), a visiting Chinese theatrical producer from Shanghai. Aware of DHW’s reputation as a writer who “has a proven ability to create smash hit shows for Broadway,” Xing asks him to adapt a popular Chinese rom-com film into a musical for his new theater in Shanghai.
DHW then extends an invitation for Xing to join him at a reception for “the next President of the United States,” namely Hillary Clinton, which Xing happily accepts. During the event, Xing enjoys a private conversation with Hillary (Alyse Alan Louis, the sole non-Asian-American in the cast) which he later giddily relates to DHW, but the two men’s happiness proves short-lived when the election results come in. Not long afterward, DHW is brutally stabbed in an apparently random attack.
It’s around this point, roughly 20 minutes into the show, that Soft Power turns into a full-fledged musical, presumably one imagined by DHW as he hovers between life and death. The rear curtain rises to reveal more than 20 musicians (including no less than five violinists), perched on multiple levels. An elaborate musical number takes place at a Hillary campaign rally in a gilt-ornamented McDonald’s. Later, in a sort of gender-reversed spin on The King and I, Xing enters into a close friendship with an emotionally devastated Hillary, who’s been numbing her pain by gorging on pizza and ice cream.
By the time Act II begins with a meta-theatrical scene in which a group of panelists discuss the very musical we’ve been watching on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, it becomes clear that coherence has flown out the window. The story then resumes with the new president (he is, thankfully, never named) declaring war on China and Xue Xing frantically working behind the scenes to negotiate a diplomatic solution involving the creation of a “new Silk Road.”
Soft Power comes across as Hwang’s cathartic attempt to process the emotional pain of both his stabbing and the devastating results of the last election. The broad comedy flies fast and furious, satirizing everything from The Catcher in the Rye to America’s gun obsession to our culture’s stereotypical depictions of Asians. But while there are many hilarious moments along the way, nothing quite jells, resulting in an evening that is less than the sum of its admittedly very entertaining parts.
The lavish production, staged in giddily energetic fashion by Leigh Silverman, seems tailored for Broadway, although it’s hard to imagine that it would have much commercial appeal. That the piece is a musical, featuring elaborate production numbers amusingly choreographed by Sam Pinkleton, is itself one of the jokes, and while the eclectic score by Tesori (with additional lyrics by Hwang) is certainly proficient and gorgeously orchestrated by Danny Troob, it does little more than add further stylization to the already surreal proceedings.
The performances are uniformly terrific: Ricamora (who ironically made his Broadway debut in a revival of The King and I) makes for a sexy and charismatic leading man; Jue brings a deadpan hilarity to his performance as a playwright with whom he has frequently collaborated; and Louis, who previously won an LA Ovation Award for her performance, is an absolute hoot as a deeply sympathetic Hillary who finds herself falling for a Chinese man with whom she engages in a series of spirited debates about the respective merits of their countries’ forms of government. The large ensemble, many of them playing cartoonish American characters, are clearly having a blast reversing the past injustice of Caucasians so often playing Asian roles. Tom Watson’s over-the-top hair, wigs and makeup designs only add to the fun.
Belying its title, Soft Power delivers a sharp-edged dissection of American-Chinese relationships, politics, culture and everything in between. It’s just a shame that its talented creators couldn’t have been a little more judicious in picking their targets.
Venue: Public Theater, New York
Cast: Jen Hoche, Kendyl Ito, Francis Jue, Austin Ku, Raymond J. Lee, Alyse Alan Louis, Jaygee Macapugay, Daniel May, Paul Heesang Miller, Kristen Faith Oei, Geena Quintos, Conrad Ricamora, Trevor Smith, Kyla Smith
Play & lyrics: David Henry Hwang
Music & additional lyrics: Jeanine Tesori
Director: Leigh Silverman
Choreographer: Sam Pinkleton
Set designer: Clint Ramos
Costume designer: Anita Yavich
Lighting designer: Mark Barton
Sound designer: Kai Harada
Sound effects designer: Bart Fasbender
Video designer: Bryce Cutler
Presented by The Public Theater, Center Theatre Group