A Wonderful Noise sets looking backward — barbershop nostalgia, love of mother, and hometown — against looking forward into an uncertain future.
Michael Hollinger and Vance Lehmkuhl have written a light comedy, not a political screed, but the issue of women’s rights is the strong subtext. The young men in A Wonderful Noise, who expect women to stay at home and bake cookies for the guys who are being drafted, are horrified that women want to intrude into the world of barbershop quartet singing.
Four young women from Philadelphia travel to a contest in St. Louis, determined to break the Barbershop Society’s gender barrier. Unable to assault the discrimination directly, they glue on handlebar mustaches and pretend to be men. They plan to win the contest, then rip off their fake mustaches to reveal their gender, proving that women can sing as well as, or better than, men.
Several numbers evoke the harmonies of barbershop quarters, and the entire score is redolent of the swing era. The most memorable tune is a feminist plea, “Give a Girl a Chance.” The opening song, “End of the Line,” is reminiscent of Glenn Miller’s 1941 hit “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” “All for One” is a patriotic anthem that harks back to George M. Cohan’s World War I song “Over There.”
Sarah Sanford’s choreography of the jitterbug numbers is excellent. Director Harriet Power uses the deep stage area successfully to show action taking place in various locations at one time.
Mistaken identity and screwball comedy
Romance blooms among the competitors, including a Jewish boy and a Catholic girl, but there’s little dramatic conflict. Mistaken identity and screwball comedy permeate the script, which hints at the rapid changes in international affairs and the role of women in 1941. One of the young men is a conscientious objector, reminding us that not everyone was willing to go to war. One of the judges of the barbershop quartets is the senator from Missouri, who in reality was Harry Truman at that time. He has to miss the finals because he’s summoned to Washington to deal with the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The attempt to break the gender barrier is thus interrupted by the start of the war, a dramatic choice that seems like a facile cop-out. Important issues are raised but not resolved. The final scene, though, evokes issues that resonate today: “We’ve been attacked. On American soil! We have to fight back.” One of the women responds, in keeping with the themes of the play: “So who’s going to work at the shipyard when all the boys head off to war?”