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BWW Review: David Henry Hwang, Jeanine Tesori's SOFT POWER Brilliantly Comments on Entertainment's Power To Mislead


It was nearly four years ago when the theatre community was shocked to learn that playwright David Henry Hwang was stabbed in the neck by an unknown assailant, not far from his Brooklyn home, requiring surgery to repair his severed vertebral artery.

Soft Power
Francis Jue and Company
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

The perpetrator, seen only from behind in a surveillance photo, was never found and police have regarded the incident as a random act of violence.

But to Hwang, and to others whose looks separate them from predominantly white America, even in this most racially diverse of cities, the odds favor the chance that he was targeted for being of Chinese descent.

The otherness that some Americans feel all their lives isn't just the result of experiencing actions of aggressive bigotry, but, as exemplified in his new "play with a musical", Soft Power, can also stem from the well-intentioned ignorance of those who see themselves as allies to inclusiveness.

Back in the mid-20th Century, in a Broadway community dominated by the stage creations of white men, there was no one in musical theatre who expressed progressive values as frequently and effectively as bookwriter/lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. His musicals, such as SHOW BOAT, SOUTH PACIFIC and CAROUSEL, which eventually achieved reputations as wholesome entertainments, were frequently regarded as controversial for ahead-of-their-time attacks on social norms in regards to racism and sexism.

But yesterday's expressions of inclusion, especially those expressed from a white male lens, are often seen differently as varied voices gain greater attention. In 1951, Broadway audiences could have seen Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers' THE KING AND I as a cry for mutual understanding between European and Asian cultures. Today, complaints about the piece's inaccuracies and patronizing view of the people of Siam have influenced more critical attitudes towards what has long been regarded as a beloved classic.

In Soft Power, a fictionalized version of Hwang, played by stage treasure Francis Jue, is hired by a Chinese corporation determined to make Shanghai the new Broadway to write a smash hit musical based on a smash hit Chinese film to premiere at a dazzling new theatre.

The film, with a title that translates to "Stick With Your Mistake", is about a married man and woman who have grown tired of each other, but after "humorous adventures" they decide to stay wed, despite their mutual dissatisfaction. The American playwright insists the ending must be changed, but Xūe Xíng (Conrad Ricamora), the Chinese President for North America of Dragon Entertainment Group, explains the importance of saving face in his country's culture, which is why the film is such a success in China. What the American sees as weakness is what the Chinese person sees as strength.

Two things they can agree on, though, are the emotional impact of musical theatre, which Xūe Xíng sees as an example of soft power - using culture to subtly influence the way people think - and, as the play takes place in 2016, their shock and disappointment to find that the immensely qualified Hillary Clinton has lost the election to someone with no political experience.

Xūe Xíng blames this on the flawed idea of giving every citizen the freedom to vote. ("You really believe your voting will force the rich to give up their money? Here, you cannot even force your mentally ill to give up their guns.")

These thoughts are swirling through the fictional Hwang's brain when, like the real Hwang, he is attacked with a knife. While desperately trying to make his way to a nearby hospital, his mind starts blending the ideas of soft power with the cultural conflicts he feels as an American of Chinese descent, and Soft Power transforms into a glitzy musical comedy that reverses the themes of THE KING AND I.

Ricamora's demanding and stoic Xūe Xíng is now the charming and sweet-singing leading man, who travels to New York from Shanghai and winds up advising Hillary Clinton in her bid for the presidency. Just like in THE KING AND I, they clash on social issues while struggling with attraction for each other, only this time it's the Asian who is seen as the wise teacher, bringing civilized thought to a vulgar, overtly militarized America where violence, religious fundamentalism, racism and homophobia are the norms.

The versatile composer Jeanine Tesori works with Hwang's lyrics, and supplies additional lyrics herself, for a score that liberally echoes styles of, though not directly quoting, the work of Stephen Sondheim, Meredith Willson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Irving Berlin and several more.

Choreographer Sam Pinkleton mimics an iconic Jerome Robbins moment and orchestrator Danny Troob creates lush string arrangements, snazzy brass passages and contemporary electronic sounds played by music director Chris Fenwick's 21-piece orchestra. But this is no ordinary pastiche. The point is to see a version of America, and of American musical theatre, as seen through a Chinese lens as inaccurate as Rodgers and Hammerstein's lens when focused on Siam.

Soft Power
Alyse Alan Louis and Xūe Xíng
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

So New Yorkers take romantic walks across the Golden Gate Bridge, the swankiest nightclub in town is McDonald's and pretty much everyone carries a gun. Guided by director Leigh Silverman, the performances become more presentational, while Clint Ramos' set pieces and Anita Yavich's costumes take on a flashier, elevated reality. And in this musical, all the white people are played by Asian actors, sporting a variety of regionalized accents that give the appearance of otherness

Except one. Alyse Alan Louis charges onto the stage playing the presidential hopeful with classic MGM-style verve that's more Judy than Hillary.

Though she initially attracts attention by explaining her complex policy proposals as a rousing song and dance, when her campaign manager, Betsy Ross (Jaygee Macapugay), warns that attention spans are waning, she shifts to something sexier and easily identified as heroic.

"All this primping and preening feels foppish," she sings as an internal monologue. "But I will dance faster in my rose-colored glasses / For I must put my trust in the wisdom of the masses."

But amidst broad moments like when the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (Jon Hoche) explains the electoral college a la Harold Hill and when the new vice-president (Raymond J. Lee) and his cohorts get all Agnes de Mill in a catchy hoedown number extolling the importance of good guys with guns, Soft Power is at its most intriguing in personal moments, like an excellent subtext-laden conversational duet where Xūe Xíng, frustrated at Hillary's half-hearted attempts to pronounce his name correctly, teaches her about the four tones of the Chinese language.

There's also a brilliantly written and executed scene, which won't be described here, that comments on how popular entertainments like musicals contribute to the shaping of negative attitudes about different cultures.

But, as expressed in an Irving Berlin-style patriotic finale the soft power that reinforces stereotypes can also be used to "lift us up" and recognize that truly being a multicultural nation means taking the time to learn the truths about other cultures.

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From This Author Michael Dale