“Soft Power” is a cement truck of a musical, churning into a solid mess a mix of political fantasia, Broadway musical homage, social satire, love story, cross-cultural parable and tale of self-identity. Confusing in plot and didactic in theme, the story germinated from a real-life hate-crime attack on Chinese-American playwright David Henry Hwang (“M. Butterfly). His character in “Soft Power, DHH (Francis Jue), is a famous Chinese- American playwright commissioned to write a musical for Chinese entrepreneur Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora) that will make Shanghai the capital of world culture.
The time is the middle of the 2016 election, and DHH brings Xing and his American girlfriend Zoe (Alyse Alan Louise) to a performance of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The King and I”. As a liberal American DHH doesn’t like the musical’s Oriental tropes; as a Chinese “capitalist”, Xing wants to appropriate the commercial and cultural power of its genre. The East-meets-West theme gets further complicated when Xing meets Hillary Clinton (also played by Ms. Louise), whom he admires, at a fundraiser and is smitten by her. The election results are a shocker for everyone (no kidding), but matters worsen personally for DHH when he is stabbed, almost fatally. That’s how the play opens.
Recuperating in hospital, DHH dreams up a Broadway musical, which is a hallucinatory version of the prelude. “Soft Power” takes on a “pastiche” (read kitchen sink) score by Jeanine Tesori (Tony Award, “Fun Home”). Tesori’s compositions - rap, ballad, rock, gospel, Broadway showtune - demonstrate range, but, like the plot, don’t cohere; the sum of the score is less than its parts. The music is homage-heavy, too, with allusions to compositions of Meredith Wilson’s “Music Man”, Stephen Sondheim’s “Pacific Overtures” and Aaron Copeland sprinkled in. Choreographer Sam Pinkleton (“Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812”) uses a versatile dance vocabulary that corresponds to Ms Tesori’s various musical genres.
Xing leaves his family in China: on arrival in the US (it’s New York but the backdrop is San Francisco – don’t ask), Xing gets accosted by young, urban criminals. Cue a rap number, but not performed by any Blacks or Latins because everyone in the cast except for Zoe/ Hillary is Asian American. The musical, funnily also called “Soft Power”, stars Hilary Clinton, campaigning as a Broadway/ Hollywood song and dance diva in McDonald’s restaurant wonderland (waiters on roller skatesl). How convenient that the red and gold of the McDonald's graphics and the Chinese flag match; set designer Clint Ramos exploits it all garishly to dazzling, bad-taste, Las Vegas effect. (Hillary ends up twerking on a giant, sparkling gold french fry.)
In a powerhouse show-tune number, “I’m With her” (one of Mrs. Clinton’s real campaign slogans), Ms. Louise plies a range of dance steps to engage the voter. Ms. Louise’s performance lays early claim as the best feature of “Soft Power”. She embraces her part, with genuine show biz gusto. (Too bad Ms Louise’s eager-to-please demeanor is more effective as make-believe than it was for the real Mrs. Clinton).
Composer Tesori’s most clever lyrics come in the duet between Hillary and Xing, “It Just Takes Time”, where Xing instructs Hillary in the tonal vagaries of Mandarin. (Think Lerner and Leowe’s “Rain in Spain”.) Soon they take up a waltz, bounding around the stage a la Anna and the King of Siam. (Yes, R&H’s "Shall We Dance”.) The strong-voiced Mr. Ricamora, who wowed The Public’s audiences as Ferdinand Marcos in “Here Lies Love” several seasons back, is especially good, but as one of three main characters in an overstuffed plot, you wouldn’t know if he’s the protagonist or not.
The second act opens with a symposium, set in the distant future, of Chinese intellectuals on the occasion of a revival of “Soft Power” evaluating how its original version decades before elevated China to global cultural domination. DHH, who’s on the panel, gets defensive; he’s getting fed-up with how the Chinese stereotyped Americans in his musical. The plot now becomes a dream within DHH’s dream, and as the musical that was staged in the second act was a revival , we seem now to be in a a musical within a musical, all of which (remember the prelude) is a musical within a play. Still with me?
In any event, Ms. Louise somehow makes Hillary’s post-election solo work, where the defeated candidate gorges on pizza and ice cream while she’s belting out a torch-song style tune. Hillary reconciles her electoral defeat in another duet with Xing, “Happy Enough”, a number costumed and staged like the nighttime street dance sequence of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in the movie “La La Land’. (Now we’re in homage within homage territory.) Getting back to DHH, he’s appalled by new president Trump who, with a chorus of his White House staff, gets lampooned in a musical number “Good Guy with a Gun” (everybody wields an assault rifle) so obvious it makes a Saturday Night Live skit look like Moliere farce.
Director Leigh Silverman, who’s been with the show since its beginning at Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theatre last year, brings this hodgepodge finally in for a Kumbaya landing. Cue a rousing gospel song, “I Believe in Democracy" (actually Tesoro’s best musical composition of the show). DHH accepts his conflicted Chinese-American identity and rationalizes his near death experience by quoting a Chinese proverb that “good fortune follows” those who survive tragic events. When it comes to whether America will survive the political enormity “Soft Power” portends to satirize, this convoluted intellectual extravaganza is too clever for its own good.
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