Thursday, November 7, 2019

109 (2019-2020): Review: SOFT POWER (seen November 6, 2019)

"East Beats West"

Soft Power, a new, self-described “play with a musical” at the Public (after being premiered at LA’s Center Theatre Group), reminds us that, several years ago, David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly), who wrote its book and music, was stabbed in the neck in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. The perpetrator, like his motive, remains unknown. 

Having nearly cost Hwang his life, it became the inspiration for this ambitious show, with a score (and additional lyrics) by Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home), which satirizes a host of political and social issues in a generally entertaining but overlong and thematically overstuffed way.  
Conrad Ricamora and company. All photos: Joan Marcus.
Given the Public’s full production support, with a 22-piece orchestra (occasionally silhouetted on multiple levels behind an upstage scrim), the 14-actor show, energetically staged by Leigh Silverman, creates a semi-autobiographical, metatheatrical reality via the presence of a character called David Henry Hwang (DHH hereafter).

Like the real person of that name, DHH is America’s foremost Chinese-American playwright. He’s played by the excellent Francis Jue, who happens, however, to be nothing like the real DHH in either affect or appearance. What will become the show’s musical theatre centerpiece is meant to be happening in DHH’s imagination as he lies bleeding in the street.
Ensemble of Soft Power.
Although this is a musical, it doesn’t actually become one until about 20 minutes in, after the dramatic setup (thus: “a play with musical”). This involves a Shanghai theatrical producer, Xūe Xíng (Conrad Ricamora), who comes to New York to hire DHH as the writer for a musical based on a popular Chinese movie.

The movie tells of a married couple who, though attracted to other people, decide to stay together, following their duty rather than their hearts, a Chinese outcome the American DHH rejects. Xūe, representing the Shanghai Municipal Government, hopes to appropriate for China the art of the Broadway musical, making Shanghai the theatre capital of Asia, with DHH writing their first show.
Francis Jue.
Many issues arise, largely, but not entirely, in the musical DHH imagines, which becomes an international classic whose revival we’re watching decades later. They highlight East-West cultural appropriation and misunderstandings; American versus Chinese conceptions of marriage and family; the American-born DHH’s confusion regarding his national identity; the secondary nature of Asian characters in American theatre; Chinese versus American methods of choosing leaders; the electoral college; democracy; the 2016 election; Hillary Clinton's loss; the unexpected president whose name is never spoken; gun violence; the use of “soft power”—cultural achievements (like Catcher in the Rye and Saturday Night Fever (!)—to gain political capital (making America more like China than the other way around); and more. There are so many, in fact, some become little more than boxes on a check-off list.

Much as liberal audiences will appreciate or even laugh at Soft Power’s anti-Trumpian attitudes, or the skewed view of America as seen from the outside, the humor falls largely on the heavy-handed side, not unlike an extended (two hours and 15 minutes, in fact) SNL sketch. Or maybe the idea of Clinton twerking, for example, to earn votes is more hilarious than I give it credit for. There’s even a fantasy scene set among musical theatre academics many years in the future, intended to satirize the notion that China will become the world’s musical theatre leader.

Happily, the multitalented company of actors—all except for Louis—of Asian extraction, is thoroughly delightful. Dancing, singing, playing multiple roles, and even—in two cases—roller skating, they keep the show afloat even when their material succeeds more because of its enthusiasm and spirit than its artistic quality.   
Conrad Ricamora, Francis Jue.
A visit of the DHH and Xūe to a New York revival of The King and I establishes the idea of how Western musicals about Asian cultures privileges distorted white perceptions of nonwhite societies, with non-Asian actors playing Asian characters. Thus, following DHH’s post-election stabbing, we get the alternative reality of an Asian musical about America, in which he imagines a The King and I scenario in which the “king” and “I” roles are reversed between Xūe and Hillary. 

We see America through Asian eyes, with images as misguided as those we perpetuate ourselves, showing Americans as pistol-packing, mob-like thugs, or presenting New York with a Golden Gate Bridge, or imagining McDonald’s as a fancy dining establishment, with roller-skating waiters. This fun-house mirror, however, quickly clouds over and loses its impact.
Alyse Alan Ricamora and company. 
The imaginary musical, which focuses on Xūe, who in the framing story has a white, American girlfriend, Zoe (Alyse Alan Louis), transfers this affair to a romance with Hillary Clinton (also played by Louis). It simultaneously enacts a plot about DHH writing a show based on the same story his nonmusical counterpart has been asked to concoct. And while the music often suggests pastiches of Broadway standbys like “Shall We Dance” and “The Rain in Spain,” the most memorable number is a serious love song, “Happy Enough,” sung by Xūe and Hillary.
Alyse Alan Louis, Conrad Ricamora.
Confusing as the plot may sound, it’s usually clear enough in practice as enacted in a variety of cleverly designed sets by the gifted Clint Ramos, including a jetliner pointing its nose at the audience, supplemented by Bryce Cutler’s video designs. Anita Yavich’s numerous costumes add plenty of visual wit, and Mark Barton’s expert lighting makes it all look good. With Sam Pinkleton’s well-executed choreography adding lots of fun, audiences have plenty to enjoy even when the script itself leaves something to be desired.
Alyse Alan Louis, Conrad Ricamora.
Jue brings a sweet poignancy to DHH’s dilemmas, Louis’s performances as Zoe and Hillary display her limber dancing and solid singing, although she works a bit too hard to hit the big notes in her 11 o’clock number, the invigorating, gospel-style “Democracy.” She also looks great in a Wonder Woman costume. Ricamora is an appealing and talented leading man as Xūe. Whatever his actual ethnicity, though, he doesn’t look particularly Chinese, nor have a consistently believable Chinese accent. 

This, by the way, seems ironic given DHH’s complaint about the casting of non-Asians in Asian roles, including the inauthentic accents they frequently employ. What, in this racially sensitive arena, exactly constitutes an Asian actor or qualifies a Filipino or a Thai to play a Chinese or Japanese? The same, of course, could be asked of "white" actors and the broad range of ethnicities they get to play.  

Soft Power is wonderfully performed, original, and challenging, but lacks the hard power needed to lift it to the next level.

Public Theater
425 Lafayette St., NYC
Through November 17