Also see John's review of The Hot L Baltimore
According to the press materials for this new musical, white racist music is widely available on the Internet and has become a powerful vehicle for recruiting young people to the white supremacist movement. This is probably news to most audiences who would attend a musical of any sort, and if this context were made as clearly on stage as it is in the press release, White Noise might be a much better piece. Commendably, its writers (and producers, who include Whoopi Goldberg) have taken on a topic that deserves attention and is hardly commercial, but the first among the many grievous faults of the book by Matte O'Brien is its failure to make clear exactly why we're watching this extravaganza of neo-Nazism. Oh, it's understood that the authors are against racism, but how present is the danger that a redneck skinhead rock band could take the country by storm and rise to the top of the pop charts threatening to launch a new wave of racist violence in the US? Is this something that could happen today, or one of those "day after tomorrow/the not so-distant future" scenarios? Is it really a cautionary tale, as the show's advertising tells us, or a satire of the music business (or indeed any business) that will sell anything for a buck? The musical's first act, in which an exceedingly buffoonish music industry executive played without nuance or inspiration by Broadway's Douglas Sills, would lead us to believe the latter. The second act wants us to take it more seriously than that, but the presence of high and goose-stepping uniformed dancers makes us wonder if we're not watching a jaw-dropping real life Springtime for Hitler.
Mackenzie Mauzy, Emily Padgett and Ensemble
White Noise has the impresario Max (Sills) first re-engineering a duo of very clean-cut African-American brothers (in the familial sense) into a white-hating hip-hop act, to the initial chagrin of his well-intentioned producer/songwriter Jake (Eric William Morris), who nonetheless agrees to write and produced their racist rants for big bucks. When Max finds a musical family trio of white racists from Missourithe hard-bitten teen Eva (Mackenzie Mauzy), her more reasonable sister Eden (Emily Padgett), and Eva's skinhead boyfriend Duke (Patrick Murney)Max persuades Jake to handle the same duties for this group, whom he renames White Noise. Knowing that a white racist band would get no airplay on mainstream media, he convinces the three to "code" their lyrics; for example by changing their song "Niggers Suck" to "Mondays Suck." How racists would crack that code and read racist sentiments into it remains totally unclear to me, but the trio of Eva, Eden and Duke fall for it. In keeping with the clichéd conventions of backstage stories, both White Noise and the hip-hop group (called "Blood Bruthas") both become overnight sensations and it's their co-existence working for the same label that leads to the piece's denouement.
O'Brien's characters are all cardboard, lacking either enough nuance to remind us of real humans or the insightful wit to work as satire. They all say just exactly what's on their mindsusually something angry, petulant or pleading, which in any case is played quite broadly, often by the actors placing emphatic glottal breaks between syllables. The only actors who rise above that are Rodney Hicks and Wallace Smith as the hi-hop duo and Luba Mason as Eva and Eden's mom. Mason actually seems like a real and kind person on stage, but unfortunately, that's not what the script says she should be. Rather, she's supposed to be a racist who filled her daughters with hateful prejudices, and the result is, like so many things in this show, confusing. While it's unlikely anyone could make O'Brien's dreadful dialogue sound believable, director Sergio Trujillo must also be blamed for not trying harder to get real performances out of his actors. Here's a clue ... when dialogue is as pushy as this is actors don't have to push to make it so.
Trujillo is director and choreographer of this show, and he fares much better as choreographer. He knows how to put a flashy spectacle on stage, and his ensemble of sexy, buff dancers do their stuff with style and energy. He's clearly influenced by, though not imitating, Des McAnuff's staging of Jersey Boys, also set in the world of rock music. He has a pretty clever rock score by Robert Morris, Steven Morris and Joe Shane to work with. Most of the numbers are performed as concert numbers, audition pieces or recording sessions and some quite good. "WTF" (which stands for not what you might think, but for "White Trash Fantasy") is a catchy little anthem, and "Hip-Hop Country" (just exactly what its title suggests), a surprisingly effective mash-up of hip hop and country music, is amusingly staged by Trujillo. The book-driven songsrock opera-ish in a Jonathan Larson sort of wayare not as effective, but then I had so little interest in O'Brien's characters that their emotions did not merit song for me. When White Noise sticks to its fully staged rock numbers, it's entertaining, but the book scenes and plot-driven songs are nearly unwatchable. It all takes place on a shiny set by Robert Brill amidst much flashing of bright lights designed by Jason Lyons and some clever projections by Raj Kapoor. Garth Helm's sound design keeps it all audible and intelligible even at high decibel levels.
White Noise has had an unusual history, starting with a production under the same title but written by an entirely different team of writers, presented at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2006. Apparently, when commercial producers got hold of it, they fired the original writers and brought in O'Brien, Morris, Morris and Shane to come up with a new show inspired by the original concept. The new piece had a reading in New Orleans in 2008 and this Chicago production is its first commercial engagement. I don't imagine the likes of Whoopi Goldberg and Sergio Trujillo sign on to a project if their ultimate ambition is a production on the great white way of North Halsted in Chicago (though the Royal George and Steppenwolf across the street do make it a vibrant theater block), but they in no way have a show ready for Broadway.
White Noise will run through June 5, 2011, at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted, Chicago. For tickets, visit the Royal George Box Office, call 312-988-9000, visit Ticketmaster or www.whitenoisetickets.com.