It's easy to catch one's self singing a vapid advertising jingle, just because it's catchy and sticks in the brain. Music is compelling in that way, even when one doesn't care about the actual words. It's a far more bizarre proposition when the message is hateful or violent. One could easily come away from White Noise singing one of its lead duo's charming harmonies, like lines from "Tragic," an anti-Semitic screed in which sisters Eva and Kady Siller sing about the Holocaust: "If we can learn from history, we can make it repeat itself."
White Noise, currently in a pre-Broadway preview run (see "Great Y'At Way," News & Views, July 7), follows the Sillers' rise to stardom. It features excellent singing and choreography and runs like a high-energy concert, featuring the Aryan divas' rock band and interludes by a gangsta rap duo. Offensive language and sentiments fly, but most unsettling is the premise that record labels would package and sell anything, even inflammatory racist ideologies, just because it's profitable. Producer Rick Kent (Brandon Williams) relishes the twins' white supremacy because he knows controversy will keep the band in the news and on the charts. But success and touring might open their eyes to people and ideas beyond their narrow upbringing.
Nazism is no stranger to Broadway stages (Cabaret, The Producers), but White Noise is based on a real set of white supremacist folk-singer twins known as the act Prussian Blue, who are more committed to the movement than to the music. Eva (MacKenzie Mauzy) and Kady (Patti Murin) are talented singers, and for them, the bargain with the devil is toning down, or coding, their rhetoric in order to gain fame and fortune, although they worry about selling out their true feelings. Twisting hateful songs about blacks ("Mondays Suck") and Jews ("Tragic") into pop hits propels the show. The music throughout is very good, particularly the ensemble numbers. The hip-hop is a bit rudimentary in sound, though sharp in lyrics.
White Noise never flinches when putting hate speech front and center. It is less griping as debate between players than as taunts and rants. One of the most richly ironic and memorable moments features skinhead racist Duke appropriating and mocking rap. He spits, "Throw your arms in the air like you just don't care," while casting repeated sieg heil salutes. Having the urban rap duo trade blingy medallions for Texas-sized belt buckles while pitching a rap/country-music crossover act also is inspired, though not the best musical number in the show.
Spilling so much raw racial confrontation onto a stage may sound like a risk for a big musical production. The word "nigger" peppers the show. The term is robbed of some of its shock value, however, because it's easy to condemn or reject its use (or any of the show's race baiting) by the white supremacists, or even the gangsta rappers. While the language and ideas are volatile, the conflict's polar opposites deny access to more reasonable minds. There is little seductive ambiguity or middle ground, even though many of the characters are likeable. It's easy to feel comfortable with one's racial assumptions while watching self-proclaimed bigots rant.
No one expects extremists to change their tunes, but the musical offers tragedy as a path to enlightenment. Unfortunately, progress often comes at such a high price, and there's no guarantee history and lyrics won't be repeated. Ignoring racists doesn't make them go away, and this engaging show is well worth the attention. — Will Coviello
7:30 p.m. Tue.-Fri.; 2 p.m. & 7:30 p.m. Sat.-Sun.; through July 26
Le Petit Theatre, 616 St. Peter St., 522-2081; www.lepetittheatre.com