Conundrum

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As my avid blog followers know, I write From the Ledge from an audience’s point of view.  And I don’t think there is a bigger audience conundrum right now in Chicago then when one is sitting through the Whoopi Goldberg-produced, supposedly-Broadway bound White Noise, also subtitled A Cautionary Musical.  As an audience member, I’m bombarded with a myriad of complicated, unsettling emotions – I am dazzled and awe-struck by the exceptional work of a group of actors with impeccable Broadway credentials, yet I’m flabbergasted that they’re singing and dancing to songs that start choruses with “’the N word’ is going to shoot white boys” or contain lyrics about sending Jews to concentration camps or shooting illegal Mexican immigrants by the Arizona border.  I’m astounded by the bravery and the no-holds-barred-nature of the material about the pop music rise of a Neo-Nazi sister act yet at the same time disappointed by the lack of character development, nuance, and multi-dimensionality.  I’m riveted, repulsed, exhilarated, let down.  Despite all of this, though, I would say White Noise, with all it’s imperfections, unrealized potential, easy targets, and cringe-worthy lyrics and dialogue, is the must-see show of the season:  it is theater that brazenly addresses a problem that some of us think will go away if we just ignore it – the disturbing onslaught of extremism in mass media and pop culture; and how telegenic right-wing fundamentalism seems to have become tolerable (from Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck’s unabated soapbox shilling to pop culture staple Donald Trump’s insane hunt for the President’s birth certificate).  And as a liberal, gay, minority, immigrant audience member, the type of person who is the usual target of these right-wingers’ vitriol, I applaud theater that takes, well, a take-no-prisoners stance against them. 

Max, your typical crass producer-without-a-soul (played enthusiastically, although at times a little too grandiosely for the smallish Royal George main stage, by Tony-nominated Douglas Sills) packages a sexy duo of Neo-Nazi sisters, Eva and Eden, into a band called White Noise, together with Eva’s Aryan Brotherhood poster child of a boyfriend, Duke, and his own assistant, Jake, giving them a playset of catchy pop songs with their hate-filled extremism hidden behind “acceptable” lyrics. Of course, because they’re cute, young, sexy things, the band becomes an overnight sensation, despite the fact that their choreography includes Hail Hitler salutes, and their costumes are updated versions of Nazi paratrooper and Nazi Youth outfits. Additionally, Max re-packages two upper-middle-class, suburban African-American brothers who write songs about “Life, Liberty, and Happiness” into a gangster hiphop act.  When these two musical groups share the stage at a music festival, chaos and tragedy ensue, which Max gleefully oversees.

The premise is dynamite in all senses of the word, but I’d prefer that book writer Matte O’Brien gets rid of the brothers’ sub-plot and concentrates on the sisters and Duke instead.  How did they develop these extremist views?  No one wakes up one morning and suddenly decides to become a Neo-Nazi.  What, in their upbringing and social environment, created this fundamentalism?  What in the larger, contemporary American culture is driving this racial hate and xenophobia?  There are some clues in the girls’ home life, but they feel very much like faint traces to me.  Also, I’d like to get some more insight into who their audience is and why they are attractive to them; I’d like O’Brien’s take around the “Lady Gaga-ing” of our pop culture, where outrageousness sells, as long as it’s marketed and packaged shrewdly, and where the lines of this outrageousness will ultimately demarcate.  The brothers are also drawn so nobly (who wouldn’t be swept off their feet by two exuberant, good-looking young guys who only want to fulfill their hip-hop country dream?) and so sketchily, that the conflict between them and Eva and Duke feel so contrived and one-dimensional “good vs. evil”. 

The other problem, for me, is Max.  We have seen this unscrupulous, Machiavellian puppet-master character before, and I never get a sense of why he is going for the shock value versus what just plainly sells (I mean Carrie Underwood is as big as, if not bigger, than Lady Gaga).   What makes him tick? What fuels his insecurity (at the beginning of the play, he says something about the music business being competitive, but what does that actually mean in the world of this play?)?  And most importantly – can he be redeemed?   Max is quite the one-dimensional character, and despite Sills’ leading man looks and musical theater timing, is actually quite charmless and unappetizing.

Sills is quite good, as is the entire ensemble.  Mackenzie Mauzy, as Eva, is a particular standout. She has rock-star charisma, and imbues Eva with an impressive balance of the ferociousness of someone absolutely committed to her beliefs but also the hungry pragmatism of someone who wants success at all costs.  Patrick Murney, looking a little like Edward Norton in American History X and displaying a similarly intense bravado, is admirable in the very unsympathetic and one-dimensional role of Duke.  I wish his character is written with more layers so he can convey a wider variety of emotions.

But I am very impressed, not only by the pop music catchiness of the songs from composers and lyricists Robert Morris, Steven Morris, and Joe Shane, but also by their truthfulness to the concept of the musical.  I mean these are songs that make you want to go clubbing, despite lyrics as shocking as giving Americans a vacation from Mexicans (gulp!).  And director Sergio Trujillo stages them sleekly and bombastically – for example, the opening number “Welcome to Eden”, despite its Nazi symbolism and choreography, is sexily hypnotic and sets an engaging tone for the musical. And I am impressed by the courage of the closing number “I Am America” sung initially by Eva, and then eventually joined by the whole ensemble, because it drives home powerfully, explicitly, and none-too-subtly the “cautionary” point of the play:  that we need to do something, that we need to stand up and be counted, before these right-wingers, Tea Party-ites, Wisconsin Governors, Fox TV commentators, reality TV show denizens co-opt the democracy we’ve fought so long and hard to preserve.  They won’t succeed, but we all need to be vigilant.  White Noise speaks to us about our times, as all art should.

Catch White Noise at the Royal George Theatre main stage, 1641 N. Halsted St., until June 5.  See it here before it jolts Broadway (and with all the publicity it has been getting, both good and bad, I’m sure it’ll end up there sooner rather than later).

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