The Dueling Critics make noise about "White Noise"

April 15, 2011

JONATHAN: Prussian Blue was a white supremacist rock band, built around two blonde sisters, that enjoyed several years of niche-market success in the last decade and then faded away. The new rock musical White Noise, which aims for Broadway and now is shaking down at the Royal George Theatre, is inspired by Prussian Blue but with a difference. In this fictionalized version, the sisters and their skinhead Nazi brother are promoted into the musical mainstream by a driven and completely amoral producer whose promises of fame and fortune sucker everyone. Kelly, whaddaya' think? Are you in lock step with the goose step?

KELLY: I'm glad to have that background, but it doesn't really help me with White Noise. It's a pretty conventional book (musicians sell out for commercial success while pursuing affairs of the heart) with a reasonably strong musical-theater score. (I especially like the ballad "Everybody Loves a Love Story," the straight-ahead rock of "White Trash Fairy Tale," and the joyously silly "Hip-Hop Country," which manages against all odds to combine those two genres.) But the Nazi imagery makes it almost impossible to see or hear anything else that's going on. I spent much of the show just aching to get out of the theater, and I suspect there was no intermission because the producers knew that given the option lots of people just wouldn't come back.

JONATHAN: Yes, I think White Noise has a strong score, too. And, yes, I think the book is tight but wrong. What the show wants to be is an indictment of popular taste and ignorance, and the ability of mass marketing to mold--or disguise--message. However, as you point out, the focus is on the internal machinations of the music biz. Characterization and exposition are pretty much left on the floor in favor of high energy and tremendous show-biz pizazz in presentation. The opening image of a jack-booted chorus is a rock version of "Springtime for Hitler" from The Producers, which lead me to believe the show was intended as satire; a really dark "what if" proposition. But it quickly grows increasingly earnest.

KELLY: Satire or not, the show seems to me a misreading of the cultural gestalt. Much of it manages to offend without enlightening, because the Nazis--even the sanitized ones in White Noise--turn out to be something that can't be safely compassed by a standard romantic musical. West Side Story could make palatable and believable love between the Puerto Rican and the Polack, but nothing can make the love between the anti-Semite and the Jew anything but bizarre. What, she couldn't tell that a guy named Jake in the music business was Jewish? What, he was so taken by her cuteness that he forgot she wrote a song called "Welcome to Auschwitz"? Please.

JONATHAN: Well, this ISN'T a standard romantic musical because the romance--between sister Eden and the maybe-Jewish song-writer the amoral producer attaches to the band--isn't given any focus or even a love song. We're told they're in love, but we never see them in love, and that's one of the many book shortcuts that short circuits White Noise with or without neo-nazis. As with many other recent Broadway shows, this one uses in-your-face attitude and elaborate presentation to compensate for what it lacks in depth. Giving the devil his due, my dear, I'd say that this 100-minute show is a slam-bang, high-tech work of theatrical wizardry that never pauses for breath, and features a cast of 21 dazzlingly-talented people. Will you go so far as to agree with that?

KELLY: White Noise does exhibit the significant talents of its cast, directors and designers. I'll agree but with an additional caveat/kvetch: the two African-American characters are mere props for the redemption of the whites. The siblings Tyler and Dion seem like strays from Guess Who's Coming to Dinner: virtuous, equipped with Ivy League degrees and with a mainstream musical message, until the same baddie producer forces them to impersonate hip-hop street thugs. The rise of their act intersects with that of White Noise, their sellout foreshadows that of White Noise, their concerns are just as intense (and better articulated) and yet their sole function is to provide a moral object lesson to every white person they encounter.

JONATHAN: "Redemption of the whites," Kelly? There ISN'T any redemption, only a shared loss at the end when the predictable violence claims a victim, and that moment is lifted directly from the 1949 anti-apartheid musical Lost in the Stars. Well, at least it's a good model from which to lift! Traditional musical theater fans will hate White Noise, audiences for the new generation of hardrock musicals (such as American Idiot) will love it, and actual rockers who stumble upon it probably will think it's real, which is a truly scarey proposition. White Noise continues at the Royal George through June 5.