It’s truly a bad thing that Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote so many Asian-themed musicals. After nearly destroying “Flower Drum Song” with his dreary new book for the 2002 Broadway revival, David Henry Hwang is now out to overhaul “The King and I.” His new musical, “Soft Power,” written with composer Jeanine Tesori, opened Tuesday at Off Broadway’s Public Theater, and it could easily be retitled “Hillary and I.”
The conceit of Hwang’s book (he also wrote the lyrics with Tesori) is to take the naïve Siamese ruler in “The King and I” and turn him into a naïve American candidate for the presidency of the United States. In “Soft Power,” she’s called simply Hillary (Alyse Alan Louis, giving a spot-on impersonation of Chelsea Clinton). The know-it-all colonialist Anna now becomes the wise Chinese impresario Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora), who falls in love with Hillary and teaches this loser politician that America isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
One can only wonder what Hwang has in store for “South Pacific.”
“Soft Power” features a fantasy musical set within a real-life crime play about David Henry Hwang, who was stabbed by a random attacker in Brooklyn and nearly died shortly after the 2016 presidential election. This musical-within-a-play is titled “Jiang Cuo Jin Cuo!” (translation: “Stick With Your Mistake!”), with its shades of Hillary sticking with Bill, and it is the show that Hwang (the weepy Francis Jue) hallucinates while recuperating on his hospital bed.
Clive Barnes’ New York Times review for the original production of “Pacific Overtures” opined that the score reminded him of Leonard Bernstein wrestling with “Madama Butterfly” in the orchestra pit. At its very best, Hwang and Tesori’s score for “Soft Power” sounds like Stephen Sondheim wrestling with “Miss Saigon.” (If this mixing of Asian cultures offends, it’s actually intended as an homage to what Hwang did with the title “M. Butterfly,” sticking it on Chinese subject matter.) Elsewhere, the music recalls everyone from Irving Berlin to Meredith Willson, and it wouldn’t be a Tesori musical without some gospel thrown in near the end.
Putting aside this blatant cultural appropriation for a moment, the score’s eclecticism accurately reflects the book’s messiness. Although Hwang is clearly obsessed with Oscar Hammerstein II, “Soft Power” only inflates when the book lifts directly from the “King and I” plot, such as the waltz between the King/Hillary and Anna/Xue Xing. When Hwang isn’t directly copying Hammerstein, “Soft Power” loses all narrative energy.
Amid the many songs, there are easy, mildly amusing potshots at American culture having to do with guns, wedding rings, fast food, more guns and the electoral college. Yes, there’s a song about the ridiculousness of the electoral college, and it is every bit as show-embalming as one would expect. Director Leigh Silverman compensates by emphasizing the cartoon aspect of the story, which often borders on a skit from “Forbidden Broadway.” There’s a number in which Hillary, stripping down to a Superwoman costume, dances with a chorus of french fries at McDonald’s. Such moments rely heavily on the flashy set (Clint Ramos), costumes (Anita Yavich) and lighting (Mark Barton).
In order to make fun of America the way Hammerstein did Siam, Hwang must elevate Xue Xing to be as schoolmarmish as Anna. Ricamora sometimes sounds more like the transgender Song Liling from “M. Butterfly,” lecturing us on the decadence of Western civilization. Hwang tries to have it both ways, but when he delivers purposefully preposterous arguments about Chinese superiority, he instead insults. For example, did you know that China is really progressive on LGBTQ rights because the men there can hold hands without being considered perverts?
Before anyone wearing a red MAGA hat can tell Hwang and Tesori to go back to commie Broadway, these songwriters deliver an anthem that would give George M. Cohan acid reflex. It’s titled “Democracy,” and from there the lyrics continue to uninspire: “Look this country’s a disaster/ In so many ways/ But we have the power/ We have the power/ We have the power to change/ That’s why I believe in/ I know/ I know/ I know/ I know/ I believe/ Oh I believe/ I believe in Democracy!”
If and when the House of Representatives finally writes up its articles of impeachment on Donald J. Trump, here’s another for the list: The president should be impeached for inspiring so much facetious political satire in the theater.