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Theatre in Review: Soft Power (The Public Theater)

Conrad Ricamora and company. Photo: Joan Marcus

With a premise as clever as it is convoluted, Soft Power may be more fun to talk about than to see. A wildly original political satire, it is also a labor-intensive endeavor, requiring the services of an eminent playwright, a much-lauded composer, a fine cast led by two Public Theater favorites, an extensive production team (including separate sound and sound effects designers), and an orchestra larger than many seen on Broadway. Whether you feel that the small nugget of insight produced by all this effort is worth it is hard to predict. Soft Power is a rather strange beast, a continuously entertaining musical that leaves one faintly dissatisfied and hungering for more.

Soft Power is rooted in two traumas experienced by playwright David Henry Hwang -- one personal and one shared with the world: The latter, of course, is the election of Donald Trump; the former is Hwang's apparently random stabbing on a Brooklyn street days after the presidential election, a misadventure he was lucky to survive. The action begins when DHH -- the author's stand-in -- is contacted by Xue Xíng, a Chinese entertainment executive, who wants the playwright to adapt a hit Chinese film for the musical stage. The plot "is about a married couple attracted to other people. They are tired of each other -- the fire is gone -- they realize their marriage is a mistake...And, in the end, after many humorous adventures, they decide to stay married." The husband, he adds, says, "This much I have learned about marriage -- to stick with your mistake."

DHH sees this scenario for the lead balloon that it is, urging Xue to let him retool it into a paean to the joys of following one's heart. Xue is deaf to such pleas, perhaps because it oddly mirrors his personal life: Trapped in a passionless marriage back home, he has fallen in love with Zoe, an American actress. He, DHH, and Zoe all end up at a Hillary Clinton fundraiser held at a Broadway performance of The King and I, allowing DHH to comment comically on the politically incorrect aspects of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. (This is especially amusing because Hwang penned a politically corrected version of R&H's Flower Drum Song, to little excitement at the box office.) "This white woman teaches the King of Siam how to rule his own country," he notes, objecting to such a Western-savior mentality. Referencing the title, Xue points out, "Someone has to be the King, and someone has to be to the 'I'." "But" wonders DHH, "why does the white character always have to be the 'I'?" "Because this is America?" replies Xue. Later, Xue makes a spontaneous connection to Mrs. Clinton and ends up instantly smitten.

But the election goes wrong and DHH is attacked; passing out from the loss of blood, he hallucinates the bulk of Soft Power, which becomes a kind of contemporary parody of The King and I, as written by a Chinese creative team. (As grisly as it is, this setup is reminiscent of the plot frame of the Cole Porter hit DuBarry Was a Lady, in which Bert Lahr, slipped a Mickey Finn, dreamed that he is Louis XIV.) The dream musical hinges on a reversal of roles, in which a bewildered Hillary tries to come to terms with her loss, aided by Xue, who becomes her political tutor and potential lover. Hwang and composer and co-lyricist Jeanine Tesori have endless, if often surprisingly mild, fun with this hallucinatory setup. Hillary, dancing as fast as she can at a fundraiser held at a McDonald's, is forced to forego a substantive policy discussion for a demanding solo in which she strips down to a Wonder Woman outfit and rides a giant French fry like a hobby horse. No less a personage than Holden Caulfield, that noted authority on phonies, arrives to accuse Hillary of being the biggest one of all. Other treats include a gun-toting chorus line and the chief justice of the Supreme Court offering a song-and-dance tribute to the ballot box. (In its merging of political spoofery with traditional musical comedy tropes, Soft Power at times resembles a 2019 update of the Kaufman-Ryskind-Gershwin classic Of Thee I Sing.)

Hwang even convenes a top-of-Act II talkback session -- held fifty years in the future, when China is the dominant world power -- in which the adult children of the creators of the show, titled Ruan Shílì, hold forth, insisting that their parents invented the musical theatre format. An American academic suggests, "Perhaps your fathers simply appropriated an American art form to tell a Chinese story." A panelist replies, "Actually, there were no American artists per se. Only native craftspeople." "Some of the American shows were quite sophisticated," the academic insists. "One of the most popular was entirely about cats," someone else notes, putting a stop to that conversation.

Tesori's score is an attractive melting pot of influences, a classic Broadway sound informed by touches of Aaron Copland, Stephen Sondheim, and gospel music, among others. Rodgers and Hammerstein are spoofed in a parody of "Do Re Mi" (in which Xue schools Hillary in the four tones of Chinese speech) and "Shall We Dance," choreographed by Sam Pinkleton. The three leads adeptly navigate this maze of politics and fantasy: Francis Jue kvetches amusingly as the put-upon DHH, referred to in the talkback as "Ruan Shílì's tragic supporting character." Conrad Ricamora's good looks and ringing voice make him an ideal leading man as Xue, whether insisting, in the early sequences, that China needs to exert soft power through its cultural exports (as, he so randomly suggests, the US did with works like The Catcher in the Rye and Saturday Night Fever) or cavorting, in true Broadway fashion, with the woman who would be president. Alyse Alan Louis is an exceptionally game and gifted leading lady as both Zoe and Hillary, especially when the latter is discovered in the election's aftermath, bingeing on pizza and ice cream and grousing about the impossible demands made on her. ("Don't get angry, don't be shrill. But for god's sake, don't be fake!") She also makes the most of the eleven o'clock number, a torch song to democracy, which, like a bad boyfriend, promises so much, delivers too little, yet always has one coming back for more.

Much is made in Soft Power of musical theatre as a "delivery system." As Zoe says, "I mean, once those violins start playing, these shows go straight to our hearts." Fair enough, but Hwang and Tesori's creation, for all its invention, never manages to wrap up its disparate ideas into a stinging commentary. DHH's dream musical posits American notions of freedom (which risks violence and rule by strongmen) against a Chinese system that subordinates personal fulfillment to the demands of law and order -- and which, for better or worse, appears to be ascendant. The authors pose trenchant questions about the effectiveness of any political system that can't pass decent restrictions on guns and resulted in the elevation of the current occupant of the White House. But the structure they have created proves to be something of a straitjacket: The same points are made over and over, without being developed; how many times can one air the same comic complaint about the electoral college? The dream musical -- which, more often than not, is gently humorous rather than laugh-out-loud funny -- never rises above the parody level; the characters are pure pasteboard and there is little reason to care about them. And, really, after everything that has happened since 2016 -- offering a cornucopia of satirical targets -- all this hand-wringing about Mrs. Clinton's defeat seems so three years ago.

If the knockout punch is never delivered, and if the show's point is sometimes subsumed by all that pizzazz, at least there is plenty of it. Clint Ramos' scenic design features an onstage airplane, glittery Golden Arches, spangled curtains, and more. His work is complimented by Bryce Cutler's video design, which fills the upstage screen with images of Chinese mountains; Washington, DC monuments; fireworks; and the Golden Gate Bridge (which, in a running gag, many of the Chinese characters are convinced is part of the New York skyline). Anita Yavich's costumes include a shiny red pantsuit for Hillary, hot pants for a chorus of McDonald's servers, and an array of party gowns. Mark Barton's lighting effectively carves the cast out of the saturated red set. Kai Harada's sound design, aided by Danny Troob's orchestrations, neatly handles an orchestra stacked on multiple levels upstage; the words are intelligible down to the last syllable. Bart Fasbender provides a variety of ambient sound effects.

In the end, we are left with the lesson that we are stuck with democracy, much like the married couple in that film script, who learn to live with a bad bargain; like everything else in the show, it feels rather equivocal. It's an argument that might have gotten more traction if Soft Power did more than worry about Mrs. Clinton while repeatedly making a couple of elementary points about the flaws of American politics. Hwang and Tesori have erected an enormous scaffold on which to hang a rather thin comic sketch. -- David Barbour

(16 October 2019)

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