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Off-Broadway Review: "Soft Power" at The Public¡¯s Newman Theater (Extended through Sunday November 10, 2019)

¡°Off-Broadway Review: ¡°Soft Power¡± at The Public¡¯s Newman Theater (Extended through Sunday November 10, 2019)
Play and Lyrics by David Henry Hwang
Music and Additional Lyrics by Jeanine Tesori, with choreography Sam Pinkleton
Directed by Leigh Silverman
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

¡°Soft Power¡± ¨C the culture-bending, plot-twisting musical within a play currently running at The Public¡¯s Newman Theater ¨C challenges the notion that the only effective parameters of power are money, race, and sex. These constructs of ¡°hard¡± power are the hallmarks of greed, systemic racism, and misogyny and, from Xue Xing¡¯s (a sensitive and alluring Conrad Ricamora) point of view, typically manifested in America. Xue Xing is ¡°President for North America. Of Dragon Entertainment Group¡± and is in his New York City office persuading David Henry Hwang (a cantankerous yet impassioned Francis Jue) to write the script for the musical to open Dragon¡¯s new Broadway District in Shanghai.

Xue Xing hopes DHH¡¯s script will change China¡¯s view of America and America¡¯s view of China. Xue is not a devotee of democracy and his agenda transcends mere establishing better relationships. ¡°What a truly great civilization achieves is ¡°soft power¡± ¨C through our ideas, inventions, culture ¨C to change the way people think,¡± claims Xue. ¡°America has produced so many international products -- such as ¡°Catcher in the Rye,¡± ¡°Saturday Night Fever,¡± so many! Now, ¡°Ji¨¡ng Cu¨° Ji¨´ Cu¨°: The Musical¡± will bring Chinese values to the world.¡±

In this first act, there are multiple references to the American political process, including: Hillary Clinton¡¯s (Alyse Alan Louis) loss of the 2016 presidential election; the foibles of the electoral college with a stunning song-and dance number by the Chief Justice (and energetic and convivial Jon Hoche); and the questioning of the viability of the democratic form of government. Powerful ¡°stuff¡± in this time of impeachment inquiries and concerns about the relationship of America to its allies worldwide.

Approximately twenty minutes into ¡°Soft Power¡± DHH, after being attacked and stabbed, hallucinates attending a performance of ¡°The King and I¡± from China¡¯s point of view. The audience hears an orchestra tuning up and a multi-tiered orchestra is revealed signaling a ¡°fast-forward¡± into the musical within the play. An ¡°actor¡± portraying Xue (none other than Conrad Ricamora) has a flirtatious encounter with the defeated Hillary Clinton. America¡¯s ¡°Veep¡± announces the Leader¡¯s intent to bomb ¡°Cheatin¡¯ China¡± intoning, ¡°It¡¯s time to get real tough with folks/So¡¯s we can liberate ¡®em/Drop our bombs to help ¡®em/And not because we hate ¡®em.¡±

Xue counters with hope for the future. ¡°It¡¯s time to build a new road. One that connects the whole world.¡± Xue calls this new road the ¡°Silk Road¡± and admonishes the Veep and the Senator, ¡°Since the Ballot Box chose your new President, they¡¯re all coming our way.¡± The future of democracy is challenged when DHH reappears and asks Xue, ¡°What if America -- really does become more like China? What if everything we thought we knew . . . is over?¡±

The title of Xue¡¯s proposed play ¨C ¡°Ji¨¡ng Cu¨° Ji¨´ Cu¨°: The Musical¡± ¨C translates ¡°Stick with your mistake!¡± alluding to how a couple that has fallen out of love should resolve their conflict. DHH initially disagreed with this sentiment, believing if a relationship is not working it should be terminated. However, at the play¡¯s conclusion, he advocates for hope in the future of America. He affirms, ¡°D¨¤ n¨¤n b¨´ s¨«, b¨¬ y¨¯u h¨°u f¨². Good fortune will follow. If we somehow survive.¡± A resounding chorus of ¡°Believe¡± concludes ¡°the real¡± David Henry Hwang¡¯s compelling parsing of the viability of not only America, but also, it¡¯s sacred commitment to the values of democracy.

There are threads of musicals within a musical within this complex and engaging play. Musical theatre aficionados will recognize many references to important (and even obscure) Broadway musicals. These references are in both Jeanine Tesori¡¯s alluring score and in Sam Pinkleton¡¯s powerful choreography. Under Leigh Silverman¡¯s impeccable and focused direction, the ensemble cast creates a palette of strong emotions and enduring questions about the future of humankind.


The complete cast of ¡°Soft Power¡± includes Billy Bustamante, Jon Hoche, Kendyl Ito, Francis Jue, Austin Ku, Raymond J. Lee, Alyse Alan Louis, Jaygee Macapugay, Daniel May, Paul HeeSang Miller, Kristen Faith Oei, Geena Quintos, Conrad Ricamora, Trevor Salter, Kyra Smith, Emily Stillings, Emily Trumble, and John Yi.

¡°Soft Power¡± features orchestrations by Danny Troob; music direction and supervision by Chris Fenwick; dance arrangements by John Clancy; scenic design by Clint Ramos; costume design by Anita Yavich; lighting design by Mark Barton; sound design by Kai Harada; sound effects design by Bart Fasbender; video design by Bryce Cutler; hair, wig, and makeup design by Tom Watson; special effects by Lillis Meeh; music contracting by Antoine Silverman; and additional orchestrations by Larry Hochman and John Clancy.

¡°Soft Power¡± runs at The Public¡¯s Newman Theater (425 Lafayette Street) through Sunday November 10, 2019. Full price tickets can be accessed by calling (212) 967-7555, visiting, or in person at the Taub Box Office at The Public Theater. Running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission.

Photo: Alyse Alan Louis and Conrad Ricamora in ¡°Soft Power.¡± Credit: Joan Marcus.
Permalink | Posted by David Roberts on Tuesday, October 29, 2019