The “culture-clash musical” is a familiar template, in which a white American protagonist — waving the flag of individuality, optimism and freedom — trumps and tramps over the complexities of that which is foreign, challenging or “other.” David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s “Soft Power,” the new “play with a musical” at Off Broadway’s Public Theater, upends that form — and our expectations — in a thrilling, moving and revolutionary way. You may never look at an American musical the same way again.
In Hwang’s very personal expression of cultural estrangement and connection, “Soft Power” does more than simply come to terms with personal identity — it’s looking at America’s identity, too. It also miraculously manages to be subversive as well as funny, touching and thoroughly entertaining. “Soft Power” deserves to be fast-tracked to a larger stage, where its sweep, smarts and 20-piece orchestra can be presented in what the piece itself refers to as a “big, big show.”
“Soft Power” at first begins as a small, small one, in which an entertainment producer from Shanghai, Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora, in a star-making performance), tries to enlist a character referred to as DHH (Francis Jue, playing the role of Hwang’s theatrical avatar) to write a new musical for the Chinese audience.
But the playwright soon discovers that they don’t see the proposed show in quite the same way. The project — with a title that translates in English to “Stick with Your Mistake” — doesn’t adhere to the spirit of the American musical, says DHH, especially not with the ending Xue insists on, which has the hero dutifully returning to his unhappy marriage to save face instead of following his heart.
Zoe (Alyse Alan Louis), Xing’s American lover, tells DHH not to give up on the project, but the playwright feels — on the eve of the 2016 elections, with the anticipated ascendency of Hillary Clinton as president — that it’s a time for dreams and hearts to be fulfilled, and for freedoms to flourish.
But the reality of the election’s outcome changes everything — as does a sidewalk stabbing that leaves DHH near death.
Using a real-life attack on Hwang as inspiration, “Soft Power” imagines DHH, in a comatose state, dreaming of a different kind of musical — one that begins with turning the tables on “The King and I” as Xue becomes the wise “I,” arriving in this strange and violent country to teach backwards Americans the new ways of the modern world. He begins this Pacific overture with Hillary Clinton (also played by Louis).
But “Soft Power” — the title refers to how civilizations achieve influence though ideas, inventions and culture — doesn’t coast on glib getting-to-know-you reversals or even on easy political satire. (Still, a production number about Clinton’s desperation to please and another about the electoral college are pointedly funny — and kind of sad, too — and staged with verve and wit by choreographer Sam Pinkleton.)
Bolstered by Leigh Silverman’s pitch-perfect direction, Hwang and composer Tesori have greater ambitions than musical or political parodies. Tapping into the styles of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Meredith Willson, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, among others — yet making the tunes her own — Tesori embraces the “delivery systems” of song templates, enriched by Danny Troob’s rich, spot-on orchestrations. But then Tesori’s songs and Hwang’s lyrics take those infectious tunes and present them from a different perspective, giving them new contexts and meanings.
When Xue, in the traditional unrequited-love number, sings, “I am happy enough” and Clinton answers with, “I will never be enough,” it’s not just a tune of unfulfilled dreams but of cultural myopia, of being stuck in systems that can’t be overturned with mere song and dance.
As Xue, Ricamora makes you believe again in the power of the romantic leading man in musicals. With his beautiful voice, he’s mesmerizing in his cool intelligence, sly humor and deeply-felt inner conflicts. As DHH, Jue presents an appealingly open-hearted and open-minded figure that any immigrant son or daughter can identify with, as cultural, political and life-and-death issues swirl around him. As Clinton and Zoe, Louis gives a knock-out performance, and adds emotional depth to what could have been an easy knock-off. Offering solid support and mini star-turns of their own, among a terrific all-Asian ensemble, are Jon Hoche, Austin Ku and Raymond Lee.
In the end, Hwang and Tesori recognize and honor the yin and yang of both cultures, where belief in duty, democracy and musicals is essential, and “heart” and “face” have a special power of their own. As Xue says, explaining what “to give face” means in an imperfect world: “I see you. You see me. None of us is alone.”