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Entertainment & Arts

‘Soft Power’ reviews at the Public Theater veer from ‘revolutionary’ to ‘nonsense’

Francis Jue, left, Conrad Ricamora and Austin Ku in “Soft Power” at the Ahmanson Theatre last year.
Francis Jue, left, Conrad Ricamora and Austin Ku rehearse “Soft Power” last year ahead of the David Henry Hwang-Jeanine Tesori project’s premiere at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Depending on which critic you ask, “Soft Power,” the politically charged surrealist musical starring Conrad Ricamora and created by Tony-winning playwright David Henry Hwang (“M. Butterfly”) and Tony-winning composer Jeanine Tesori (“Fun Home”), is either a “revolutionary” effort in the arts or a bloated mess of “political nonsense.”

“Soft Power” premiered Tuesday off-Broadway at the Public Theater and elicited the same mixed critical responses it garnered when it staged its world premiere at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles in May 2018.

For the record:
5:43 PM, Oct. 16, 2019 A previous version of this story said East West Players was a coproducer of “Soft Power” at the Ahmanson. It was not.

The show, co-commissioned by Center Theatre Group, is a bold attempt at turning the imperialist narrative featured in “The King and I” on its head by telling the story of a Chinese producer who comes to America to share the beauty of his culture only to be confronted by a garish Wild West of guns, fast food and consumerism run amok. Oh, and he meets a totally unhinged Hillary Clinton.

“If you’re confused by this synopsis, I’m slightly dizzy from writing it,” wrote Times theater critic Charles McNulty last year. “The radical originality is both the show’s blessing and burden.”

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Here’s what McNulty’s counterparts are saying after the show’s New York opening:

Variety: “The ‘culture-clash musical’ is a familiar template, in which a white American protagonist — waving the flag of individuality, optimism and freedom — trumps and tramps over the complexities of that which is foreign, challenging or ‘other.’ David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s ‘Soft Power,’ the new ‘play with a musical’ at Off Broadway’s Public Theater, upends that form — and our expectations — in a thrilling, moving and revolutionary way. You may never look at an American musical the same way again.”

The Wrap: “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.”

The New York Times: “Bristling with ideas that rarely get dramatized, let alone in such imaginative form, it is something of a miracle but also something of a muddle, the ideas scrambling over one another for prominence and the ingenious form unable to corral them. Still, those ideas — about the betrayals inherent in love, democracy and musicals themselves — are too exciting and important to dismiss by quibbling them to death.”

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The Washington Post: “It is a truly inspired idea and, as David Henry Hwang’s ‘Soft Power’ demonstrates, truly difficult to pull off: a Chinese musical comedy about American politics. Sending up all at once Broadway values, the U.S. electoral system and a Chinese mindset both repelled and entranced by American culture is an enticing blueprint for parody — and a daunting proposition for any artist.”

The Daily Beast: “Soft Power ranges everywhere through time and across themes of personal and political displacement, in and out of its different fictional worlds. Its focus can feel woolly and puzzling (and we leave Hwang and his stabbing in a way-too-long dramatic limbo), but its mischief and intelligence powerfully root it. If it can feel a mess in places, it‘s a good, energizing kind of mess.”

The Hollywood Reporter: “There’s certainly no faulting the show for lack of ambition, but for all the frequently dazzling intellectual and theatrical showmanship on display, the evening never coheres in satisfying fashion. The show frequently strikes its targets, but only by spraying so much satirical buckshot that some of it is bound to hit.”

TimeOut New York: “There are some thrills in the show, not least the final image: a full-stage chorus line of the large, nearly entirely Asian cast, singing its (broken) heart out about America. But the show still seems to be finding its feet, working out the order in which it wants to tell its story and Hwang’s place in it. A great deal of thinking has gone into Soft Power, as well as anger and despair. Now it just needs to discover its flow.”

Observer: “Directed with the right balance of dry wit and shameless razzmatazz by Leigh Silverman, Soft Power boasts one of the most appealing and hard-working ensembles onstage today and it’s consistently engaging and amusing. Still, for all its wit, structural sophistication, and still-resonant political punch, I couldn’t help but wish the material had more heart.”

Vulture: “Soft Power has many concepts to balance at once, which may make it sound fascinating or messy, and it tends to be both.”

New York Post: “There is so much going on in Hwang and Tesori’s musical, that its power turns out to be just as described: soft.”

Michael Ritchie, the artistic director of Center Theatre Group, has brought exciting theater programming, but why hasn’t he made Los Angeles a greater player in the national conversation?
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