White Noise Royal George Theatre center
South Side of Heaven Second City
The first moments of White Noise suggest a lost scene from that well-known Bialystock and Bloom production, Springtime for Hitler. A phalanx of sexy storm troopers in black leather goose-steps out of the smoky upstage darkness, the wide silver bands on their Aryan-chic military hats glittering. They break ranks to do a little dance by director-choreographer Sergio Trujillo—a kind of Helmut Newton-meets-the Nuremberg rallies thing. A pretty white girl appears on a platform above, rocking out. Stridently. You can tell she's the star because the band on her hat is gold.
Uh oh, you think. We're awfully close to a gape-mouthed moment a la The Producers.
But this new show, behind which Whoopi Goldberg has put her cash and cachet, recovers from its ridiculously miscalculated opening. To some extent, at least. Written by Matte O'Brien, with music and lyrics by Joe Shane and twin brothers Robert and Steven Morris, White Noise is problematic in many, many ways. One thing it isn't, though, is a Mel Brooks-style joke—inadvertent or otherwise. In fact, it's so serious that the press kit comes with a study guide on hate speech, prepared by the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance project.
Touted as a "cautionary musical," White Noise draws on a tradition of social dramas about the canny promoter who turns a nobody into a star only to lose control of his creation. Frankenstein supplies the template, of course. But there are loads of other examples—especially from the mid-20th century, when demagogues like Father Coughlin and Joe McCarthy (not to say, Hitler) were figuring out how to use new electronic media to huge effect as a way to manufacture conspiracies, foment frenzy, and hold sway.
The usual pattern is to portray the nobody as a kind of political idiot savant who has no particular agenda and no sense of his potential until the educated folks start grooming him. Perfect example: the Andy Griffith character in Elia Kazan's 1957 movie, A Face in the Crowd. A charming drifter at first, Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes gets pulled out of the clink and turned into a radio star, then twists free of his handlers to become a very dangerous person indeed.
White Noise modifies the formula. Inspired by real-life tween duo Prussian Blue—blond-haired, blue-eyed twin sisters who gained brief notoriety a few years back by singing white supremacist songs—it posits Eden and Eva Siller and their swastika-tattooed pal, Duke: hard-rockin', hateful, yet winsome composers of ditties like "Niggers Suck." Though new to big-time showbiz, the three are hardly innocents when they're discovered by A&R man extraordinaire Max Kent. They've already determined their agenda of world domination through pop. To paraphrase Cabaret, they think tomorrow belongs to them.
Max believes he can co-opt his new proteges as easily as he's already co-opted Blood Bruthas, a pair of rappers—also siblings—whose postblack, bourgeois, love-America message gets dumped for a cartoonish, bust-a-cap thug style that we're told sells better. Brilliant and stunningly amoral as he is, though, Max doesn't count on either Duke's fanaticism or Eva's ambition. It's Eva who's wearing the gold-banded hat in the opening scene.
Elements like the symmetry between the Blood Bruthas and the Siller sisters—whose band Max names White Noise—make it clear that this show is meant to be taken as a fable and therefore forgiven some of its excesses. But those excesses quickly get, well, excessive—starting with Max's seemingly limitless ability to intimidate everyone around him. For much of the show, he's not merely a Svengali but a god. More to the point, he gives the impression of being the owner of the only record label on earth. Nothing else explains the hoops people jump through to please him. White Noise is set in the present, and the present is a time when the Internet has fragmented the music industry, DIY releases are commonplace, and, in fact, a whole hate-rock subculture is already thriving online. Under those circumstances, it's passe to pose Max's conventional methods as the only route to stardom. Yet the Bruthas throw over their whole act for him, the members of White Noise change lyrics for him, and his supremely talented producer, Jake, dishonors himself for him.
There are other peculiarities, like the way this supposedly hard look at hate pussyfoots around Max's ethnicity even though every nonverbal signal assures us he's Jewish. That White Noise still manages to retain a good deal of entertainment value is a testament to the kickass skills of its cast and live band. All plausibility aside, Douglas Sills is a charming, frightening monster as Max. Eric William Morris projects an appropriately diffident sweetness compounded with sharp intelligence as Jake. Emily Padgett makes us believe in her ambivalence as Eden, the Siller sister who starts to grow away from the party line. And far, far over on the other end of the spectrum, Patrick Murney is way disturbing as Duke. On opening night, Murney stood next to Wallace Smith, who plays one of the Bruthas, and put his arm around him as they took their bows. It was a telling gesture, as if Murney had to reassure himself that he wasn't really the person he'd been for the previous couple hours. I could understand the impulse. He's that good.