There’s a terrific new musical struggling to be set free in Michael R. Jackson’s “White Girl in Danger.” All it would take to facilitate the escape is for a tough dramaturg to cut the show by a good third. In its current incarnation, the soap opera-inspired “White Girl” runs nearly three hours with intermission at Off Broadway’s Tony Kiser Theater, where it opened Monday.
One of the many splendors of Jackson’s previous musical, “A Strange Loop,” is the speed and economy of the narrative. “White Girl” plays like an inspired but deeply flawed first table reading that needs to shed several repetitive scenes and at least three of its endings. For sure, there is a great ending here, among the lesser ones, in which the musical’s big secret is revealed to stupendous effect. And that’s the other wonderful thing about “White Girl in Danger”: just when you’ve given up hope that the show can turn itself around, Jackson and his talented cast startle us back to attention with their theatrical legerdemain. Given the chance to revisit any new musical that opened this season (“Kimberly Akimbo” opened Off Broadway in 2021), I’d pick “White Girl” in a TKTS heartbeat.
Regarding the one great ending that this musical does deliver, it features James Jackson Jr. in an extended tour de force solo that appears to be as strong an indictment of the predominate culture and as personal a confession of that culture’s seductive powers as anything Michael R. Jackson put in his autobiographical “A Strange Loop.” Since the song “Centering Myself” features the show’s Big Reveal, that secret can’t be mentioned in this review, but it’s definitely worth the long wait when the big moment finally arrives near the end of “White Girl,” obscured only in part by all those other flimsy finales.
What can be discussed here is one of the other characters that Jackson Jr. plays: Clarence is that archetypal smiling Black janitor who appears occasionally throughout the musical to deliver the kinds of observations that Eddie “Rochester” Anderson often delivered whenever his boss, Jack Benny, made a mess of things. Jackson Jr. turns Clarence’s few shuffling appearances into a series of high points that never fail to slap the show back into focus.
And what a lot of messes there are on stage!
“White Girl in Danger” is the title of a TV soap opera that has captured the attention of Keesha Gibbs (Latoya Edwards), a young Black actress who wants to break into her school’s teen social circles and storylines dominated by the bad girl Megan White (Molly Hager), the severely anorexic Maegan Whitehall (Alyse Alan Louis) and the chronically masochistic Meagan Whitehead (Lauren Marcus). Those last names say all you need to know.
Jackson’s book delights by having one actor (Liz Lark Brown) play all three of the mother characters and one actor (Eric William Morris) play all three boyfriend characters. These two triple assignments are performed by the very chameleon-like Brown and Morris in grand musical-comedy style. In the process, they deliver the gamut of Hallmark-ready nonsense regarding fraught teen lust and twisted family life.
Along the way, Keesha politely drops hints (repeatedly) that she can take the place of Molly Goodwhite, a peer who we learn has been “bumped off” when her body found in the nearby woods, and join the girl band that needs to win the upcoming rock contest. Hager, Louis and Marcus parody everyone from Cyndi Lauper to Courtney Love in the show-stopping song “Basic.” Rebuffed, Keesha eventually starts her own band (Kayla Davion, Jennifer Fouche, Ciara Alyse Harris) only to learn that starring in a soap opera of her own can inspire the wrath of anyone whose last name begins or ends with the word “white.”
The far greater burden of being the star of “White Girl” is that all the best moments go to the racist supporting characters. Jackson’s book rarely distinguishes Keesha from the other generic heroines in Broadway’s current crop of mediocre new musicals.
More problematic is the performance of the multi-tasking Tarra Conner Jones, who plays Keesha’s mother in the same raucous shouting voice that she brings to the roles of a nurse, a school lunch lady, an assistant district attorney and a TV personality named Mammy. (Commercials for Mammy’s show, among other ads, run during the intermission.) Some modulation of Jones’ yelling would help, but that wouldn’t solve the disaster of Jonathan Deans’ crude sound design that reduces every high-pitched singing and speaking voice to an indecipherable audio static.
Jackson’s book also sticks Jones and Edwards with a big courtroom scene that goes completely off the track when it tries to replicate the comic climax of “Tootsie.” In that 1982 movie, Dustin Hoffman’s Dorothy parodies the soap opera genre’s many ridiculous storylines before revealing the character’s real male identity. The moment works in “Tootsie” because it is delivered fast and under two minutes. The moment in “White Girl” doesn’t work because it goes on and on and on, and by this late point in the show, every joke regarding the musical’s warped conventions of soap opera plots has been thoroughly exhausted.
But back to the high points: A supporting player in Act 1, Jones dominates the last half-hour of “White Girl” with a series of loud and coarsely amplified anthems that are now de rigueur in most stage musicals.
Lileana Blain-Cruz’s direction of “White Girl” is reminiscent of her Tony-nominated work on the recent lackluster “Skin of Our Teeth” revival at Lincoln Center. Several bits of business are clever, but when Jackson’s book drags and/or repeats itself, which is often, Blain-Cruz leaves her actors stranded.
Then there’s Jackson’s score. Upon first listening, it emerges as mere pastiche, with a heavy emphasis on bubble-gum, which makes sense for a musical about soap operas. After “A Strange Loop,” most of the songs here are a disappointment, but it might be wise to remember that the label of “pastiche” was also thrown at Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” and Jeanine Tesori’s “Caroline, or Change” when they first opened.
So who knows how we’ll look at “White Girls” a decade or two from now? Hopefully, after some judicious cuts have been made, it will be a shorter, more focused “White Girl.”
Jackson’s new musical is presented by the Vineyard Theatre and the Second Stage Theater.