Review: “White Noise”
October 02nd, 2006
By Rob Kendt
This isn’t my America—or is it? The dubious triumph of the new “cautionary musical” White Noise, which charts the improbable rise of a white supremacist pop group, is that it conjures such a seamless red-state nightmare vision, and dresses it in such inviting pop-musical garb, that it taints everything it touches, like a bleach stain, and gets under your skin, whatever the color. It may be hard to watch American Idol, or for that matter the next party political convention, in quite the same way again.
True, at bottom White Noise is little more than a conceptual joke—less charitably known as a gimmick—but it proves to be a remarkably potent mix of entertainment and provocation in the hands of director/conceiver Ryan J. Davis and writer/composer Joe Drymala (with contributions from additional songwriters). Really, if this is all just a joke, why does the laughter stick in our throats? And at what other musical would we think twice about applauding, though we’re already smiling and tapping our feet?
The scrubbed, blond-and-blue-eyed shtick of two Oregon girls, Eva (Libby Winters) and Blanche (Molly Laurel), is based on the real “white pride” duo Prussian Blue, which despite having repeatedly been the subject of prime-time TV news reports is still thankfully a fringe phenomenon. But Drymala and Davis are after bigger game than the soul-numbing conformity of pop music, targeting instead what they see as the newly resurgent xenophobia of cable news anchors and other opinion shapers. Ava and Blanche perform their subtlest, most insinuating song, Drymala’s “Good Man Tryin’,” on a ranting-head talk show (Phillip Taratula plays said head, among other secondary roles, with droll snap). And amid the show’s diabolically witty embedding of racist lyrics into radio-ready ditties, two of the show’s comic highlights hit hot buttons outside the old-school black/white racist agenda: immigration (Rick Crom’s “Big Fence”) and gay marriage (Glen Kelly’s “God Gave Us Magic”). It pains me to admit it, but in my home state of Arizona these two songs could almost be hits.
Once the group, guided by a smarmy manager (Rick Crom), reaches a level of polarizing mainstream success, the show has nowhere to go but further into the realm of the implausible, so Drymala sidetracks into subplot, as a cherubic outsider, Kurt (Danny Calvert), tries to “drop the hate” and break free. I think we’re supposed to see a bit of ourselves in Kurt’s queasy misgivings, and feel somehow implicated in his craven compromise with the American worship of success and stardom, but that critique doesn’t quite come off. Indeed, White Noise is finally less convincing as a portrait of what white America would actually like to hear, at least on its iPods, than as a logical and irresistibly rendered extrapolation of liberal worries about the country’s latent authoritarian impulses, and where they would lead us if they were unleashed. As such, White Noise could be a hit here and in other blue-state urban centers, but it’s an open question how its snickering subversion would play closer to its ostensible heartland setting.
Still, the nervy alchemy of White Noise has an undeniable kick. When, near show’s end, the quartet—the frighteningly intense Winters, the Mouseketeer-like Laurel and Calvert, and Micah Shepard, an impassive skinhead with a disarmingly sweet voice—gathers to sing a chillingly beautiful arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner” amid stage smoke and blue light, it may be the most beautifully fascist musical-theatre moment since “Tomorrow Belongs To Me.” Sing along at your own peril.
Book, music, and lyrics by Joe Drymala (with songs by additional composers)
Directed/Conceived by Ryan J. Davis