“Soft Power” deserves to be a hard ticket. Unlike any show I’ve seen, this musical comedy, with play and lyrics by David Henry Hwang and music and additional lyrics by Jeanine Tesori, is a fun-filled, satirical romp. Yes, it is often also somewhat of a wild mix with structural problems. But how many amusing shows have you seen looking at our country from a Chinese point of view? And how many have you seen with Hillary Clinton portrayed in song and dance and in a romantic affair with someone other than Bill--a Chinese theater producer?
The imaginative production at the Public Theater stems from the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles and premiered at the Ahmanson Theatre in May of last year. “Soft Power” is choreographed by Sam Pinkleton and directed by Leigh Silverman, and in the current staging has a 22-piece orchestra dramatically spread out above the set (imaginative scenic design by Clint Ramos).
Here’s the set-up. Part of the script is based on the real-life stabbing and recovery of author Hwang, sympathetically played by Francis Jue. But the main thrust involves Chinese producer Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora) as a visitor to New York who wants to recruit Hwang to write a major musical to be staged in Shanghai. They argue over the plot in terms of whether a husband stays true to his commitment, as Xing says is the custom in China, or leaves for the woman he really loves.
Ultimately, the time frame moves into the future with a musical in China looking back nostalgically on how things were in the United States of our era. Throughout the production, elaborate set pieces are hilarious to watch and there is spoofing of so-called American democracy. For example, our elections are ridiculed with attempts to explain how the Electoral College works.
There’s a splashy scene set in McDonald’s as the height of night life luxury. Some of the satire uses the formula for “The King and I” as a touchtone, not only with a spirited dance imitation, but with Hillary Clinton, exuberantly and often hilariously played by Alyse Alan Louis, being taught to speak Xing’s name properly.
The injection of Hillary in “Soft Power” is an entertainment plus. She sings, she dances, she strips to a sexy outfit, and we see her passionately kissing Xing. (I’d like to see Hillary and Bill in the audience for this one.) Compliments are due Louis for her effervescent performance as Hillary, who is depicted as sure to be elected. The loss feeds into the ribbing of the Electoral College system, as well as the tragic absurdity of the Trump minority-vote victory.
The show is loaded with humorous touches, such as Xing admiring what he calls Manhattan’s Golden Gate Bridge, shown majestically in the scenic design. The plot also at one point involves a thwarted plan for a U.S. China war.
The entire look of the show is refreshing, enhanced by the extensive Chinese-American casting. The lyrics are often clever, and the music fits nicely with the overall concept. Although there is awkward repetition of the attack on Hwang in the plot structure, one can easily forgive such problems and simply revel in the spirit and originality of “Soft Power.” One might even want to see and enjoy it again. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. Phone: 212-967-7555. Reviewed October 16, 2019.