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Off Broadway Reviews

Soft Power

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 15, 2019

Alyse Alan Louis and Conrad Ricamora
Photo by Joan Marcus

About three years ago, playwright David Henry Hwang was walking near his home in Brooklyn when suddenly he was stabbed in the neck by an unknown assailant. Hwang suffered a pretty serious wound, requiring surgery and several days of recovery in the hospital. So what does he do afterwards? He riffs on that experience by writing a play, of course. And not just a play, but a gleeful musical comedy on which he collaborated with composer Jeanine Tesori (they share lyric writing credits). The result of their efforts is Soft Power, opening tonight at the Public Theater, and it is a merry delight.

The basic meta-premise is this: A playwright by the name of David Henry Hwang has been invited by a Chinese producer to write a musical based on a very popular Chinese romantic comedy film. Before they can iron out the details, the attack on Hwang occurs, and, in a semi-conscious state, his brain conjures up a musical. The content of this hallucinatory vision draws on many different things that have been on Hwang's mind, including the election of 2016 (Hillary Clinton becomes the female lead in the musical), the proliferation of gun ownership, and the failure of Americans to have even a basic understanding of the values and belief systems of other nations.

If you are so inclined, you can find all sorts of serious meaning about the changing shape of U.S.-China relations, the history of American-style imperialism, and the messiness of our particular brand of democracy. These things are not hard to notice, but I would urge you to take a short break from thinking too deeply about such matters and just enjoy the wonderful central performances by Conrad Ricamora as the producer and Alyse Alan Louis as Hillary Clinton, as well as Francis Jue's adorably dorky portrayal of David.

Jeanine Tesori was provided a score that hints at old classic musicals, Sam Pinkleton's rambunctious choreography includes an iconic moment from The King and I, and Clint Ramos's set design brings the Golden Gate Bridge into New York City and turns McDonalds into a combination of a night club and the most awesome eatery in the U. S. All of this is accompanied by a terrific 20-piece orchestra. It's altogether quite a fabulous enterprise for an Off Broadway production.

Soft Power, directed by Leigh Silverman, is at its best during the dream/musical sequences. Its ending, a sincere moment of uplifting hope for a better tomorrow, pulls us out of the enjoyably spoofy and gently satirical mode that has preceded it. But it does seem right for a Chinese-American playwright and the almost entirely Asian-American cast in a show that wants to reconcile without rancor a love for this country with its ongoing struggles to embrace its diversity.

Soft Power
Through November 10
Newman Theater at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street at Astor Place
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: