'White Girl in Danger' review — this soap opera sendup brings the laughs
Read our four-star review of White Girl in Danger, the latest musical from A Strange Loop creator Michael R. Jackson that spoofs and celebrates soap operas.
White Girl in Danger is Michael R. Jackson’s latest musical foray. The story-within-a-story takes place in Allwhite, a fictional universe infused with soap opera tropes and flairs for the melodramatic. Here, Keesha is a “Blackground” actor stuck in a loop of slave narratives and stories of police brutality. But when Keesha gets promoted to the Allwhite Best Friend character, she sees a pathway to landing a central storyline.
At the Allwhite high school, Keesha plays bestie to Megan, Maegan, and Meagan, a trio of white girls with myriad issues. Megan (Molly Hager) has a drinking problem, Maegen (Alyse Alan Louis) struggles with an eating disorder, and Meagan (Lauren Marcus) is a klutz with an abusive boyfriend (Eric William Morris). Keesha is the foil to their chaos. The Megans just want their band, Girlwhite, to take home the top prize at the upcoming Battle of the Bands, but Keesha is creeping in on their turf. Oh, and there’s a killer on the loose.
Like Jackson’s Tony Award-winning A Strange Loop, White Girl in Danger is highly referential. It nods to soap operas, musicals, satires, thrillers, and even fantasy novels. It’s chock-full of Easter eggs for pop culture enthusiasts. It’s hard to catch them all, especially the ones stuffed into fast-paced songs. Under the direction of Lileana Blain-Cruz, the musical catapults through time and space swiftly.
The design helps to transport the audience through the wild ride of genres. The Allwhite high school is reminiscent of the ‘80s sitcom Saved By the Bell, with a Memphis-style design of zigzag walls and bright lockers by scenic designer Adam Rigg. At the annual “Anti-Allwhite Diamond charity fashion show for Blackground Representation Matters,” the actors don glittery gowns with shoulder pads (by costume designer Montana Levi Blanco), a nod to the long-running soap Dynasty. The raucous number “Let’s Party” mirrors house parties in ‘90s flicks, complete with pulsing lights (by Jen Schriever), grunge attire, and red Solo cups.
The ride of this three-hour musical is too long, especially considering Keesha reaches her outlined objectives by the end of Act 1. But she wants more — she wants to dismantle Allwhite supremacy and lift the Blackgrounds from oppression. The second act cascades into several more genres and hits hot-button issues, one after another. There is a big payoff, though, that brings the rambling story to a close. (It’s too bad some audience members in my row left at intermission and missed it.)
The performances are certainly worth sticking around for. As Keesha, Latoya Edwards is exacting and steadfast in achieving the character’s motives, whether she’s portraying a runaway enslaved person, a self-assured lawyer, or a seductive lesbian. As the storylines shift, Edwards seamlessly transitions and brings the audience along for the ride, full throttle.
Tarra Conner Jones delivers a standout performance as Nell Gibbs, Keesha’s mother who sacrifices her own plot to center her daughter’s. Throughout the musical, Nell takes on various roles in the Allwhite universe, from school lunch lady to nurse to the assistant district attorney to mammy. Her powerful pipes soar in several songs, particularly the 11 o’clock number “Why I Kill.” Jones elicits audience laughter with her physical comedy, even simple sidelong glances. Best of all, she fully embodies the character of a mother with a deep well of unconditional love, despite her daughter’s antics. As Keesha puts it: “You are the greatest Mom character of all time.”
Fans of A Strange Loop will enjoy this jaunt through Jackson’s imagination. A Strange Loop redefined the musical form, and White Girl in Danger carries that torch forward and revises the soap opera to boot. It could use some trimming, but this musical is multi-layered, humorous, and jam-packed with power songs.
White Girl in Danger is at the Tony Kiser Theater through May 21. Get White Girl in Danger tickets on New York Theatre Guide.
*Photo credit: Lauren Marcus, Molly Hager, Alyse Alan Louis, and Latoya Edwards in White Girl in Danger. (Photo by Marc J. Franklin) *
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