So major props to Hwang (author of “M. Butterfly”) for dreaming up a wildly ambitious premise that results in gleeful, if unruly, entertainment about geopolitical dynamics and personal and national identity. The core of “Soft Power,” which marked its official opening Tuesday at off-Broadway’s Public Theater, is a commentary on the evolving rivalry between China and the United States. The relationship is filtered here through a nation’s “soft” conveyance of influence: its commercial art.
Combined with elements of Hwang’s own story, including a life-threatening stabbing attack on a Brooklyn street in 2015, “Soft Power” pivots a little too glibly from one conceit to another. The production, directed by Leigh Silverman, with music by “Fun Home’s” Jeanine Tesori, isn’t a mess, exactly; it’s just that as the creative team weaves its sardonic tapestry, you remain aware of there being too many threads and too much facile stitching.
Yet, because of the concept’s ingenious underpinnings and the cunning abandon with which the playwright throws himself at the challenge, “Soft Power” provides just enough satisfaction for the two hours you spend with it. Because it’s fun to watch a play grapple with such big ideas, you forgive some of its problems with plotting.
The musical-within-a-play is set up thusly: Hwang, played by his longtime actor-muse, Francis Jue, is recruited by a Chinese businessman, Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora), to adapt a hit Chinese rom-com into a Western-style musical with the title “Stick With Your Mistake.” Elements of the businessman’s own life make their way into the musical: He’s infatuated with Hillary Clinton (Alyse Alan Louis) after meeting her during the 2016 campaign. So as we segue from Hwang in the hospital to the musical in his head, Ricamora’s and Louis’s characters metamorphose into the lovers, with romance-starved Hillary trying desperately to be all things to all voters.
Embedded in “Soft Power” is a clever distillation of what the misperceptions of the West might be to Chinese people who’ve never visited, a variation of what Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman explored in their Japan-set 1976 musical “Pacific Overtures”: When Hwang’s musical’s Xue arrives in an inexact conjuring of New York (with the Golden Gate Bridge on the horizon), he’s greeted by a caricatured chorus of hucksters, including one named Tony Manero. You may remember Tony as a Bay Ridge character played by John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever.”
American audiences can appreciate both what Chinese imaginations might get right as well as wrong about us. Hwang riffs here on the electoral absurdity that ushered into the nation’s highest office a candidate who did not receive the majority of the votes. When Hillary tries to explain the democratic system to Xue, his retort makes too much humiliating sense. “A very nice dream,” he says, “that people are smart enough, wise enough. Worthy of trust enough to decide their own futures. The problem with such dreams is that they are not true. This is why in China we do not allow the people to select our leaders.”
The bulk of “Soft Power’s” satirical oomph is carried by the musical numbers, which float on Tesori’s lush compositions and Danny Troob’s superior orchestrations, performed by an orchestra 20 instrumentalists strong and conducted by Chris Fenwick. (A high point occurs with the reveal of the musicians on the tiered backdrop of Clint Ramos’s set.) One could wish for lyrics, credited to Hwang and Tesori, that were up to the richness of the music; as it is, they are merely serviceable. Perhaps this is intentional, a reflection of the limits of the attempt to imitate an American form. In any case, they fall dully on the ear.
The principal actors — Jue, Ricamora and Louis — handle the heavy-duty roles with aplomb, and 11 supporting players add their vocal strengths admirably: The show sounds full-bodied on the Public’s Newman Theater stage. The larger issues “Soft Power” seeks to amplify end up a bit muffled by the author’s need to apply autobiography and ultimately, a sentimental finish. But even if Hwang invites you here to do some of the editing work in your own head, he makes this sprawling event a jaunty assignment.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed the orchestrations to Bryce Cutler. The orchestrator is Danny Troob.
Soft Power, by David Henry Hwang, music by Jeanine Tesori. Directed by Leigh Silverman. Choreography, Sam Pinkleton; sets, Clint Ramos; costumes, Anita Yavich; lighting, Mark Barton; sound, Kai Harada; video, Bryce Cutler; orchestrations, Danny Troob. About 2 hours. $95-$150. Through Nov. 10 at Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., New York. 212-967-7555. publictheater.org.