Just when I was bemoaning the dearth of newly minted original musicals, along comes “Soft Power,” a wonderfully innovative, exciting, intelligent and tuneful show, created by Tony-winning playwright David Henry Hwang (“M. Butterfly”) and Tony-winning composer Jeanine Tesori (“Fun Home”).
“Soft Power” has a play-within-a play framework, or as the creators call it, “a play with a musical.” It requires a bit more attention from the audience than the average song and dance comedy. The show begins as a comedy, just before the 2016 elections, with a Los Angeles meeting between DHH, David Henry Hwang’s surrogate (played by first-rate Francis Jue) and a Chinese producer Xue Xing (charming, talented Conrad Ricamora). The producer wants DHH to develop a version of “Sex and the City” set in Shanghai for a Chinese audience. As in reality when the real David Henry Hwang has been approached by Chinese producers, our DHH finds Chinese censorship too great a burden and turns down the offer.
Later that evening, DHH brings Xue Xing and his American girlfriend, wannabe actor, Zoe (terrific Alyse Alan Louis), to a Hillary Clinton fundraiser that includes a performance of “The King and I.” Xue Xing, who not only admires American musicals, but also Hillary Clinton, meets a funny overblown version of her and they take a selfie. DHH and Zoe talk about the racist overtones of “The King and I,” in which a white English schoolteacher teaches an Asian king how to rule. Zoe describes it as a powerful “delivery system” that asserts first world ideology through a heartfelt story. It is an example of “soft power,” the assertion of cultural and intellectual sway on the world instead of the “hard power” of military might.
After the outcome of the election, DHH finds himself questioning whether the Chinese form of government may actually be preferable to our very imperfect democracy. Then, as happened in real life, DHH is stabbed in the neck near his home and almost dies.
DHH hallucinates from his hospital bed that it is about 100 years in the future, and the scene changes. It’s the 50th anniversary of a Chinese musical, “Soft Power,” and we watch an extremely funny, colorful, over-the-top Chinese musical, based on the folklore that has grown around Xue Xing’s meeting with Hillary Clinton (Alyse Alan Louis). Everything is turned upside down since it’s the Chinese perspective of the United States: MacDonald’s is the fanciest restaurant where patrons are dressed in top hats and tails, gun-toting clods run the government and Xue Xing and Hillary Clinton have a full-blown love affair. This version celebrates the weakening of the United States and China’s ascendency in the realm of soft power.
Yes, the plot is a bit convoluted and the panel discussion at the start of the second act goes on too long. But those are minor quibbles. The production enjoys great performances, a fascinating story, stimulating ideas, artful choreography (Sam Pinkleton), great costumes (Anita Yavich) and creative scenic design (David Zinn). Director Leigh Silverman keeps all these balls in the air with a terrific result. With more than a dozen memorable songs, no two sound alike. The last number, “Democracy,” provides the rousing and hopeful ending the audience craves.
“Soft Power” is an astute and ambitious new show with creative and clever content — the kind we need to keep theatre fresh and alive. It’s everything you could want from a musical and more.
Emily S. Mendel
©Emily S. Mendel 2018 All Rights Reserved