By Carol Rocamora
Inspiration often comes from the most unexpected sources.
In the case of the American playwright David Henry Hwang, it was a stabbing on the streets of Brooklyn in 2015 that left him close to death. From that traumatic event came the idea for Soft Power, his new musical satire-on-steroids now playing at the Public Theatre.
How to describe this wildly ambitious, imaginative new work, with book by Hwang, music by Jeanine Tesori, and lyrics by both? Basically, it’s a vibrant meta-theatrical satire on East/West perceptions, with a complex form and a storyline almost too challenging to follow. But never mind – it offers rich food for thought, plus an additional heaping portion of entertainment on the lavish, over-the-top red-and-gold set designed by Clint Ramos.
Here’s the plot: a character named DHH (based on the author David Henry Hwang) agrees to write a musical for a successful Shanghai producer named Xue Xing (pronounced Shing). The musical is to be titled “Stick With Your Mistake,” based on a popular Chinese movie that promotes monogamy, whether it’s happy or not.
But after playwright DHH (Francis Jue) is stabbed on the New York streets in a racially-charged incident, he comes up with an idea for another musical – this one, called “Soft Power.” It’s a parody of The King and I, that sends up cross-cultural stereotypes in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic, reflecting America’s perceptions of Asians that have lasted for decades. (Stay with me – it gets complicated!)
So in DHH’s reimagined musical (the second play-within-a-play of the evening), his producer Xing (now the “I” in The King and I) reverses Anna’s journey to Siam. Instead, Xing lands at “New York Airport” in a fantasy America with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. There, he’s immediately accosted by cursing, gun-carrying street stereotypes. Then, Xing meets the “King” of the reimagined King and I – none other than Hillary Clinton (Alyse Alan Louis), and soon the musical-within-the play becomes a smarmy romance between Xing and Hillary (a la the King and Anna.)
Don’t fret if you can’t follow the plot entirely – sit back and enjoy the eye-popping 22-piece orchestra perched on a towering scaffolding, playing Jeanine Tesori’s lush score. The talented 14-member ensemble is expertly directed by Leigh Silverman and delightfully choreographed by Sam Pinkleton. There are superb performances by Conrad Ricamora (Xing), Alyse Alan Louis (Hillary) and Francis Jue (DHH). (Note: with a light, loving touch, Tesori parodies classics from the American songbook, including “Trouble in River City” from The Music Man and of course “Shall We Dance” from The King and I. Other parodies include Hilary’s comeback song “I Believe in Democracy”, and the spiritual “Lift Us Up” and “Welcome to America”).
Above all, focus on the rich political content – namely, how Chinese and Americans view each other, how they stereotype and misunderstand each other, and how that shapes Chinese/American political relations. “You have too much freedom,” says Xing about Americans, whereas Chinese are “happy enough” with their fate. “Papa,” says his daughter fearfully, ”I hear Americans hate China.” “I am an American,” declares DHH (representing Soft Power’s true author, who is American-born and of Chinese descent.) “I’m not two halves – I’m whole!” So why did he get stabbed? Who is American? And what is a Chinese- American?” this ambitious play asks.
But there is hope, says Xing. “American values can change through show business!” Therein lies an interpretation of the play’s clever title (Soft Power) that works both ways – both satirically and sincerely. DHH’s new musical-within-the play becomes a fantasy version of America, just as The King and I is a fantasy version of Asian culture. As tensions escalate between America and China (under the new Trump regime), Xing cries out to his American counterparts: “Selfishness will be your downfall! “Happiness is for all!” Towards the end of the play, in the song “Good Guy with a Gun,” Xing calls upon violent Americans to lay down their guns – as well as their fears and their pride.
“Good fortune will somehow follow us if we survive in America,” says the DHH at the close of this unique musical/political satire. Clearly, his creator would agree.
Photos: Joan Marcus
Soft Power play and lyrics by David Henry Hwang, music and additional lyrics by Jeanine Tesori, directed by Leigh Silverman, now through November 17 Run Time: 2 hrs 20 min. www.publictheater.org