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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
SOFT POWER
at Public Theater

BRANCH'S TOP PICK OF 2019
By JESSICA BRANCH

  Alyse Alan Louis and company/ Ph: Joan Marcus

Soft Power, the brainchild of David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori, is not a perfect work. It has a clunkily front-loaded frame narrative. It is (by design) wildly derivative. And as for the musical-within-a-fever-dream plot – let’s just say it’s complicated. But for all that, this stunning work is one of the most original, entertaining and ultimately illuminating new pieces to come along in a long time.

Rather than spin off a big-budget film or recycle some band’s biggest hits, Soft Power takes us on a wild ride that mixes reality and fantasy, convention and creativity, to defamiliarize not just Broadway, but the American way of life. And while that sounds off-puttingly highfalutin, it’s actually a blast. As the play opens, just before the presidential election of 2016, the character DHH (Francis Jue), a Chinese American playwright, is approached by an entertainment producer from Shanghai (the charismatic Conrad Ricamora) to create a musical about the merits of sticking with a loveless marriage. Secure in the knowledge that Hillary Clinton (Alyse Alan Louis) is about to win, DHH refuses a task so antithetical to the values of Broadway – and the pursuit of happiness. But in the wake of the election’s result, he (like the real playwright he’s standing in for) is stabbed for being Chinese and, near death at the hospital, hallucinates about what a musical in which the perspective is not Western would look like.

The resulting deconstruction of not just The King and I but the American musical tradition itself is hysterical, enlightening and oddly exhilarating. But in its most unsettling yet inevitable move, the play interrogates our system of government and values as well, positing Hillary as the “king” struggling against an antiquated and frustrating system that seeks to render her a stereotype. All this with ravishing musical numbers that employ Tesori’s mastery of musical idioms to at once evoke and evolve the genre. That a hate crime could serve as the initial spark for a musical so smart, intellectually provocative, aurally lush and downright fun is perhaps the best argument to be made for the importance of art – theatrical or otherwise – in our times.

 


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