There are qualities to praise in the well-intentioned but over-blunt new rock musical “White Noise,” the Whoopi Goldberg-backed show about a neo-Nazi band making it in the mainstream. There’s the billboard-sized message that when it comes to popular music Americans tend to “hear everything but listen to nothing.” And there’s the bold darkness of the thing, with barely a character who isn’t a racist, a sell-out, or a cynical opportunist, even if the show wraps its despair within a tuneful score, energetic choreography and polished performances. But in its current state of development, this show comes off as a sledgehammer.
Douglas Sills (“The Scarlet Pimpernel”) presents himself as our guide. He’s a record producer named Max who’s unabashedly, stereotypically intent on giving the audiences he apparently despises exactly what they want and even deserve. He berates his ambitious but spineless protege Jake (Eric William Morris) into transforming a couple of preppy African-American hip-hoppers from Connecticut (Wallace Smith and Rodney Hicks) into gangsta rappers called Blood Brothers, singing about shooting white boys.
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And then he finds Eva (Mac-Kenzie Mauzy) and Eden (Emily Padgett), two beautiful, blonde, innocent-looking sisters who, having seen their father spurred to suicide after he lost his job to cheap immigrant labor, have bonded to a message of white power and crafted melodiously catchy songs of hate. They’re encouraged by Eva’s skinhead boyfriend Duke (Patrick Murney), whose unwillingness to compromise his “principles” would in most tales of this genre — the supposedly pure character corrupted by the evil music industry — make him the moral center, begging his star-to-be girlfriend to stay true to herself.
In this particular instance, of course, selling one’s soul for money would be good, and Jake, always reluctant, helps them do it by taking a song with the N-word in the title and changing it to “Mondays Suck.”
There are occasional signs the show might find a satirical voice: “Nobody wants to work with us,” Eden tells Jake as they fall for each other. “I think it’s the whole Nazi thing.”
But all wit here wilts. This show is deadly earnest, determined to be sincerely tragic but keeping the characters and plot too plastic to get us emotionally involved.
Max manipulates both his bands , Blood Brothers and White Noise, into a simultaneous performance, and sits back gleefully awaiting the results. Sills, donning a goatee, might have been better off with a bicycle moustache, so he could twirl it as he plots his dastardly deeds in what might be considered the first 19th Century Rock Melodrama.
This is all slickly directed and choreographed by Sergio Trujillo (choreographer of “Memphis”), who stages the numbers with punchy iconography, those jutting fists so clearly conflating the sign of black power with hailing Hitler. But it takes an opening night aud of friends to cheer songs of purposeful offense, no matter how catchy, like “Mexican Vacation” and “Master Race,” sung by un-dimensional characters who either believe in hatred or are willing to sell it.
The eager cheers, in fact, might just make the point. They were hearing but not listening.