×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Off Broadway Review: ‘Soft Power’

The American musical — and America — are reconsidered in this powerfully smart and entertaining show.

With:
Conrad Ricamora, Alyse Alan Louis, Francis Jue, Jon Hoche, Kendyl Ito, Austin Ku, Raymond J. Lee, Jaygee Macapugay, Daniel May, Paul HeeSang Miller, Kristen Faith Oei, Geena Quintos, Trevor Salter, Kyra Smith.

2 hours 5 minutes

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.”

Off Broadway Review: 'Soft Power'

The Public’s Newman Theater; 299 seats: $150 top; reviewed Oct. 13, 2019, opens Oct. 15, 2019 Running time: 2 HOURS, 5 MIN.

Production: A Public Theater and Center Theater Group presentation of a play with a musical in two acts, with book and lyrics by David Henry Hwang; music and additional lyrics by Jeanine Tesori.

Creative: Directed by Leigh Silverman; choreography, Sam Pinkleton; sets, Clint Ramos; costumes, Anita Yavich; lighting, Mark Barton; sound, Kai Harada; video, Bryce Cutler; music director/supervisor, Chris Fenwick; orchestrations, Danny Troob; production stage manager, David Lurie-Perret.

Cast: Conrad Ricamora, Alyse Alan Louis, Francis Jue, Jon Hoche, Kendyl Ito, Austin Ku, Raymond J. Lee, Jaygee Macapugay, Daniel May, Paul HeeSang Miller, Kristen Faith Oei, Geena Quintos, Trevor Salter, Kyra Smith.

More Legit

  • & Juliet review

    West End Review: '& Juliet'

    From “Wicked” to “Waitress,” female empowerment has been a boon for musical theater. But where those shows veered between sincerely earnest and earnestly sincere, “& Juliet” gleefully goes for broke putting gender on the agenda as it yokes pop milestones from the likes of Britney Spears, Katy Perry and Celine Dion to a girl-power revamp [...]

  • Ephraim Sykes participates in the 73rd

    Michael Jackson Musical Finds Its King of Pop

    Tony Award nominee Ephraim Sykes will moonwalk on Broadway, playing Michael Jackson in “MJ The Musical.” The show, which its the Great White Way after a rocky gestation. It begins previews on July 6, 2020, at the Neil Simon Theatre with an official opening set for Aug. 13. Sykes is currently appearing in another pop [...]

  • A Christmas Carol review

    Broadway Review: 'A Christmas Carol'

    Those expecting a traditional take on Charles Dickens’ classic holiday perennial may be in for a shock at the new Broadway version of “A Christmas Carol.” Or at least they might be terribly perplexed by this dour production, whose additions only subtract from the potency of the transformative tale. While there have been many adaptations [...]

  • Timothee Chalamet poses for photographers at

    Timothée Chalamet to Make London Stage Debut With Eileen Atkins in '4000 Miles'

    Timothee Chalemet is set to take to the London stage for the first time, appearing next spring in Amy Herzog’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated play “4000 Miles.” Matthew Warchus will direct the production at The Old Vic, which will also star Eileen Atkins (“The Crown,” “Gosford Park”). The play opens April 2020. It turns on the story [...]

  • Jonathan Groff

    Listen: Jonathan Groff Knows He's a Spitter

    If you’ve seen “Little Shop of Horrors” — the starry revival headlined by Jonathan Groff in a small Off Broadway theater — you probably noticed that Groff spits a lot when he speaks onstage. He’ll be the first to tell you that he’s been a spitter as long as he can remember, but “Little Shop” [...]

  • Key Largo

    L.A. Theater Review: Andy Garcia in 'Key Largo'

    Would “Casablanca” make a good play? Guess what: It was first produced on stage as “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.” How about “Key Largo,” the black-and-white Bogie-and-Bacall vehicle in which a handful of misfits find themselves trapped in a South Florida hotel while a hurricane rages outside? In fact, the 1948 John Huston film was adapted [...]

  • Sophia Anne Caruso and Alex Brightman'Beetlejuice'

    How 'Beetlejuice: The Musical' Became a Broadway Turnaround Story

    Christopher Kuczewski is what you’d call a Netherling. It’s a reference to the netherworld inhabitants who populate “Beetlejuice: The Musical,” the off-beat adaptation of the 1988 hit film that’s becoming an unlikely Broadway turnaround story. And that designation, which has been given to superfans of the show, goes a long way towards explaining how a [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content