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White Noise

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

The true message of the daring new musical White Noise has nothing to do with tolerance or acceptance. No, this absorbing entry in the New York Musical Theatre Festival, which is rocking the Barrow Group Theatre through the end of the month, turns on something even more innocuous: "Teen pop is the purest form of fascism ever created."

That might seem a lofty statement, especially for a fictional bio-musical about a white-supremacist pop quartet. But author Joe Drymala and director-conceiver Ryan J. Davis not only live up to the promise of those 10 devastating words - they surpass it. And in doing so, they've created what's likely to prove the most provocative and controversial musical of 2006.

This is not, for the record, because of the subject matter itself. We've already become inured to much of it through real-life events: It's been hard to avoid the news coverage swirling around the real-life white-nationalist duo Prussian Blue, consisting of the blonde-haired-blue-eyed Gaede sisters who--though not yet 15--have already demonstrated their ability to harmonize hatred.

No, White Noise will draw outcries of protest for the same reason it will attract legions of fans: for the way it makes you feel. Drymala has written not a single word in support of the comments of the astonishingly attractive post-adolescent Aryan sisters Blanche and Eva (Molly Laurel and Libby Winters), who rise to mainstream fame in his libretto, but the songs he and his eight collaborators have provided make it impossible to completely object to what's happening onstage. They are, shall we say, white-hot hits.

Each and every one of the tunes sung by Blanche and Eva and their boyfriend-bandmates in the group White Noise Duke (Micah Shepard) and Kurt (Danny Calvert) could be slipped into everyday pop radio rotations and increase the average quality level two or three times. Numbers like "An American Hero," a Carpenters-style folk tribute to James Earl Ray (written by Eric Svejcar) for the girls when they're just starting out in their home state of Oregon; "My Dream" (Ben Cohn & Sean McDaniel), for their disastrous public debut in Nashville; and their breakout hit "I Hate Mondays" (Glen Kelly), which substitutes a euphemism for a very specific racial slur, are as unavoidably infectious as they are discomforting.

That's the point, of course, and in his book Drymala works strenuously hard not to overmake it. While he relies heavily on the tired device of narrator Kurt leading us through the history of White Noise a la Jersey Boys (which this musical closely resembles in both look and feel), he otherwise remains staunchly true - and even respectful - of his characters' points of view. Eva is unapologetically vocal, and Duke is a literal skinhead, but Drymala still sees them all as semi-victims (if conscious ones) in a much more nefarious plot.

The true villain ultimately is their manager Rich (Rick Crom, who also contributed a song), who not only works to make their music palatable to a broader audience, but does everything he can to expose as many people as possible to it. He knows exactly what they're selling, and he has no qualms about helping them peddle it, even to the point of booking them on a TV show so they can sing Benj Pasek and Justin Paul's "Do the Laundry," about separating whites and colors. It's not what one says, after all, it's how it's packaged that really counts.

Davis evokes that same demented logic in his production, which brings the palpably energetic and urgent entertainment value of a rock concert-Broadway cross to drive home the story's points. Crisply staged throughout, and sympathetic without ever winking, his direction is the perfect ironic match for the material. Choreographer Todd L. Underwood gives the actors all the right moves, and they know just what to do with them: The central foursome are a fierce ensemble, though Winters stands out for the unusual power of her portrayal, which manifests itself just as strongly in dialogue scenes as it does in songs like Drymala's plaintive "Good Man Tryin'" (about her father's unemployment due to illegal immigrants) or his angry "I'm Not Afraid" (in which she confronts - across the Top 40 - her sister's growing uncertainty about her beliefs' foundations).

But if Winters is a major driving force throughout the evening, Drymala relinquishes his control far too early. If its finale - "White Invention" (Laurence O'Keefe), a Caucasian "reclamation" of hip-hop - tips its hand too far to convince as the race-baiting number that leads to 11 deaths, the first act of White Noise is otherwise as good a musical as you're likely to see at NYMF (or, perhaps, anywhere) this year. The second act, however, too easily descends into the maudlin depths the first act so strenuously avoids, with numbers like "Reaching Out For Tomorrow" and "Be Strong" (both by Drymala) that, while diegetic (like every other song in the score), function as too-obvious plot hooks to guide the story toward its inevitable, pat ending.

These missteps unfortunately prevent White Noise from being great theatre start to finish. It's not even a certainty they're problems that can or should be fixed: Though they subvert the cruelly seductive tone on which so much of the show is so successfully built, they still display Drymala and Davis's penchant for an irresistibly dark twist: The emotions in "Reaching Out For Tomorrow," written by Kurt to lure his lover Blanche away from the group, are exactly as soulless, gutless, and synthetic as today's top teen pop. It's in the frightening sentiments penned by steadfast songwriter Eva that the truest passion is found.

White Noise
Through September 30
Barrow Group Theatre, 312 West 36th Street between 8th & 9th Avenues
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