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Soft Power

What a truly great civilization achieves is "soft power"— through our ideas, inventions, culture— to change the way people think. America has produced so many international
— Xue Xing telling David Henry Hwang's stand-in,DHH, now the s pop musical he plans to produce will bring Chinese values to the world.

Soft Power
Conrad Ricamora and Francis Jue (Photo by Joan Marcus)
With the key cast members as well as director, choreographer aboard , David Henry Hwang's and Jeanine Tesori's genre busting Soft Power has arrived in New York. I can't think of a better place than the Public's Newman Theater for it to find an audience ready to buy into Hwang's dazzlingly original but flawed mash up of fact and fiction.

Hwang's Yellow Face, another semi-autobiographical take on hyphenated Americans' identity and representation in American theater, a also ran at the Newman; so did Tesori's terrific 2015 before it moved to Broadway (The Newman was also the birthplace of the now Broadway bound Girl From the North Country> and, of course, the not only genre busting but super-ticket selling success as Hamilton.

The California premiere has been trimmed, redesigned by Clint Ramos, with the help of Bryce Cutler's projection and video design and Llllis Meeh's special effects. All these changes work in the interest of the show's fitting perfectly in the 200-seat Newman Theater. Tesori's varied in style and always tuneful songs are beautifully supported by a very welcome large orchestra that's heavy on strings orchestra (that even includes a harp), and on whom Director Leigh Silverman several times pulls the upstage curtain for a thrilling visual image.

soft power
The Company (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Given these improvements and the retention of the best and wittiest elements of the initial production, Soft Power is no more another Hamilton than The Wrong Man, that also recently opened at another prestigious off-Broadway venue with a big buzz . While it's got the stagecraft and show biz pizazz , it isn't a sure-fire hit either.

The problems with Hwang's book, its overcooked satire of East-West culture and out of sync link to the world outside the theater persist. The cheeky casting of Hillary Clinton as the romantic lead — at one point bursting on stage in a gasp inducing glitzy red pant suit (bravo, Anita Yavich!) — as well as the defeated 2016 candidate gorging on ice cream is fun to watch. But it also underscore that Soft Power is too much focused on the present to have as long-lasting a future as the cleverly satirized The King and I .
And so, though a Hwang and Tesori enthusiast, I can't quite go along with Curtainup's California critic Evan Heneron's "who cares?" even as he acknowledged that it was excessively goofy and self-indulgent. ( the LA review).

That said, I found plenty to enjoy: The visually stunning production, the clever conceit of feverish dream inspired musical interludes within a play, Tesori's diverse score, Sam Pinkleton's eye-popping choreography. There's no arguing that all this talent has indeed managed to combine the play and musical genre, using a love story with a political point of view to serve as a means for giving the chaos in the current world a possible happier future.

It's the the way The King and I replay turns the cast on its head and triggers an overall homage to famous American musicals that Soft Power comes closes to being brilliant. I would gladly watch Choreographer Pinkleton's priceless "Shall We Dance" parody several more times!. This scene clearly shows that the conflict between Xing who sees democracy as an unworkable system and the very different attitude of the US born DHH is not all that different from the King of Siam and Anna.

The two leads, Conrad Ricamora and Francis Jue, vividly inhabit their roles as Soft Power's leads. Ricamora, actually made his Broadway debut in the 2015 Lincoln Center revival of The King and I. Jue, my favorite regular guest on Madam Secretary ( per my recent streaming feature was also terrific as the playwright's father in Yellow Face. He's now actually the playwright's alter ego whose fevered dream is the result of Hwang's real life near death attack some time ago . Though I've never heard Jue sing before, he too does so most effectively, as in "Dutiful, his duet with Ricamora.

The scenario's non-linear structure may account for some viewers' confusion, though I found Hwang's opening prologue in which Jue's DHH introduces himself an engaging set-up for shifting the focus to the East-West parodying. That brings on Ricamora's Xue Xing, a non-hyphenated Chinese producer bent on making China the entertainment capital of the word, but who, like DHH, seeks enlightenment about who he is or should be. Xue Xing's efforts to enlist Hwang's alter ego to be part of China's rise to cultural dominance move the plot deeper into the more over-the-top elements : the musical detours; Xue Xing's romance with 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton; the traumatic knife attack that seeds the full musical fantasia within the play.

While Alyse Alan Louis bravely takes on the double role of Xue Xing's girl friend Zoe and Hillary Clinton, her showgirl style Hillary and defeated loser never quite overcome the determinedly in-your-face satiric wink at the current political and cultural zeitgeist to give us a flesh and blood person we can care about.

And though nothing quite rises to the parody of The King and I there are some genuinely funny interchanges — notably Chief Justice Roberts (an outstanding Jon Hoche) explaining the electoral system. . .a scene in which Xing ends an argument about democracy's shortcomings with his girlfriend, Zoe (Alyse Alan Louis), by asking her "How will you get the rich to give up their money if you can't even get the mentally ill to give up their guns?" . . . a White House scene in which the VEEP (a major role for the multi-tasking Raymond J. Lee) and his armed with rifles ensemble caters to our wishful thinking, by laying down their guns.

Shockingly believable and unbelievable as that high-stepping, gun toting White House ensemble scene is, "Good Guy With a Gun" is one of Tesori's best songs

After a second act opening that takes us into a depressing future courtesy of a TV panel discussion (apparently pontificating intellectuals have survived other disasters), "Democracy" sung solo and by the whole company aims for an, if not happy, but at least hopeful ending . Too bad, that as soon as we leave leave the Public Theater which has endured as a cultural haven, the less hopeful reality of the future that's being shaped outside its doors, will once again kick in. That's why the extreme relevancy of a show like Soft Power is also its biggest problem.

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Soft Power
Book & Lyrics by David Henry Hwang.
Music & Additional Lyrics by Jeanine Tesori
Choreography by Sam Pinkleton
Directed by Leigh Silverman.
Cast (alphabetical order): Billy Bustamante (Xue Xing Standby), Kendyl Ito (Jing/Ensemble), Jon Hoche (Chief Justice, Hali Aohala,ensemble, Francis Jue (DHH), Austin Ku (Bobby Bob), Raymond J. Lee (Randy Ray/VEEP/Ensemble), Alyse Alan Louis (Zoe/Hillary), Jo Jaygee Macapugay (Campaign Manager/Ensemble), Daniel May (Ensemble), Paul HeeSang Miller (Ensemble), Kristen Faith Oei(Ensemble), Geena Quintos (Ensemble), Conrad Ricamora (Xue Xing), Trevor Salter (Ensemble), Kyra Smith (Ensemble); also Billy Busamante (Xu Xing standby), Emily Stillings (Female Swing), Emily Trumble (Zoe/Hillary Understudy), and John Yi (Male Swing)
Sets: Clint Ramos
Costumes: Anita Yavich
Lighting:Mark Barton
Sound:Kai Harada
Hair, Wigs, Makeup: Tom Watson
Sound Effects: Bart Fassbender
Projections and Video design: Bryce Cutler
Special Efects: Lillis Meeh
Orchestrations: Danny Troob
Dance Arrangements, Additional orchestrations: John Clancy
Music Contractor: Antoine Silverman
Music Supervisor, director: Chris Fenwick
Stage Maager: David Lurfe-Ferret
Running Time: Approx 2 hours, including intermission
Public's Newman Theater 415 Lafayette Street
From 9/24/19; opening 10/15/19 ;closing 11/10/19
Reviewed by Elyse Sdommer at 10/13/19 press preview

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