“Everyone’s a little bit racist,” sang those edgy puppets in another musical.
That catchy five-minute tune manages to capture more revealing insights about racism in America than the entire 1 hour, 50 minute rock musical White Noise does.
Racism is bad. We know this. Even the self-identified white-supremacist popstar Eva (the perfectly-cast Mackenzie Mauzy) admits that she’s fighting an “unpopular cause.” However, White Noise doesn’t get very far in saying much more than this, but does it in an entertaining, flashy way, with lots of loud (and sometimes catchy) songs, strobe lights and hip-hop dance moves.
While the show is loud, the volume needs to be turned up on the message.
This musical, presented by Whoopi Goldberg and aiming for Broadway, has a lot going for it. Starting off, the premise is provocative. Using the group Prussian Blue as inspiration, White Noise looks at how hate speech and propaganda can be subversively distributed through mainstream media when the language is coded and the package is sexy. Not only does the show explore this from the white supremacist side, but also questions the messages contained in gangsta rap.
And this is where the show starts to fumble. To pull back the curtain on the corrupt and desperate music industry, we’re introduced to the lowest of low music producers, Max (Douglas Sills). Max is a stereotype to the max (the show’s study guide provided to teachers describes him as such). He discovers the blonde-haired, blue-eyed racist rocker girl duo (Mauzy and Emily Padgett as the more good-natured sister Eden) and sees dollar signs. He says things like, “Who cares if they’re fucking Nazis? Will they sell records?” He remakes their image and calls them “White Noise.”
This is when the eyes start to roll.
The characters, for the most part, are one-dimensional pawns who are moved around to make a few points: 1) racism is bad; 2) parents play a big part in raising racist kids; 3) the entertainment industry is greedy and corrupt; 4) hate speech can come in many forms.
The generic staging, by director Sergio Trujillo, follows the blueprint of previous shows tracking the rise and fall of music groups, such as Jersey Boys and Dreamgirls.
BUT: I did enjoy myself more than I thought I would, and there are hints of a very good show here.
I loved the internal tension of finding myself subconsciously tapping my toe to a catchy song, sung by the racist girl duo, and feeling ooky about it at the same time. The relationship between Eva, Eden and their widowed mother (Luba Mason, doing all she can with a severely underwritten part) has a lot of interesting layers, but are only slightly explored. The corruption of the music industry is smartly personified by a savvy, 20-something music executive (Eric William Morris), who starts off despising Max’s motives, but soon (and without much convincing, it seems) finds himself drinking the music industry Kool-Aid.
And the ending is chilling and pretty damn near perfect.
However, after the hardworking cast takes their rightfully-earned bows, the band comes out and plays off the audience like we’ve just watched Jersey Boys, reminding me that this is a show with an identity crisis. While it calls itself a “cautionary tale,” it’s more like the creative team is apologizing for exploring so many dark, upsetting things, and wants to send us home passively bobbing our heads to a catchy beat.
“White Noise” plays through June 5 at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted St. Tickets and more info here >