'We Will Rock You': Theater Review

Paul Kolnik
Flimsy yet leaden jukebox musical of Queen hits.

A contrived, overlong musical set to the tunes of iconic British rock band Queen.

We Will Rock You might be the most successful London musical to fail to make it to Broadway since the fabled, fusty Salad Days (1954): It ran 12 years in the West End before closing this past May with 4,600 performances. Despite boffo productions throughout the world, this current U.S. tour, which arrives for its West Coast premiere after weeklong shakedown cruises through Des Moines, Kansas City and Seattle, marks its very first mounting stateside. And so another one bites the dust ...

I’m fond of the metallically proggy pop of Queen, fronted by the singular vocals of the inimitable Freddie Mercury, backed by guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor and bassist John Deacon, their bombastic pomp leavened by music hall humor and flamboyant campiness. Then again, I also remain an unrestrained partisan of the underappreciated 1980 Flash Gordon movie for which their songs comprise the score, a far more convincing vehicle for their sensibility than this contrivance, which perplexingly resembles those jerry-built Hollywood musicals showcasing popular bands of the 1940s (most uncannily, in its thread of quiz show pop trivia, corny Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge). Their true story could make a terrific movie, and a long-awaited, unpromisingly expurgated, version may yet shoot this year, with Ben Whishaw replacing the once-attached Sacha Baron Cohen as Freddie.

But We Will Rock You instead creates a faux-dystopian framing story in which to shoehorn a compendium of their hits, infelicitously arranged and reprocessed to fit the confining musical contours of a stage extravaganza. On record, even the best songs played richest in the context of their original album configurations, the singles anthologies hemorrhaging the sense of vision that gave the band its unique stamp. Ineffably redolent of its 1970s arena-glam era, their work is here misappropriated to stand for a generic embodiment of the impulse to “rock out”, as if their catalog were somehow the essence of a reductive simplification of rock ‘n’ roll.

Corporate manufactured music now exclusively occupies the ears of a brainwashed iEarth rigorously thought-controlled by a monopolistic multinational, while the few deviant rebels, the “Bohemians”, worship dimly understood fragments of ancient rock texts from Elvis through Springsteen and Michael Jackson to Britney and Katy Perry (!). Like clueless archeologists, these righteous misfits parse phrases with fundamentalist literalism, from “blue suede shoes” to “hit me baby one more time,” observing a religious faith in the power of rebellion through iconic self-expression and the quest for a functioning musical instrument, supposedly extinct on the planet.

They find their prospective saviors in two escaped refugees from brainwashing detention: stolid and square Galileo (Brian Justin Crum), who hears voices and sounds in his head, channeling lyrics and tunes from rock’s past, and the free-thinking fashion criminal Scaramouche (Ruby Lewis), whose spiky defensiveness equips her to evolve into the guitar hero behind Galileo’s melismatic, ersatz-gospel vocals.

These feebly fanciful tropes do make for some sincere giggles of fond recognition, though they have little to do with the essence of Queen’s music. Freddie Mercury is fittingly reduced to a plaster statue amid the flotsam of an uncomprehending Bohemian shrine, although his ghost gets a mute walk-on in the spotlight at the climax. The show strains so hard to accommodate its unwieldy concept that, astoundingly, it cannot even manage to integrate the group’s biggest hit single, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, retrieving it only as an encore after the first curtain call.

Buoyed by low expectations, the show generates more earnest good will than it deserves, particularly through its committed if doomed performers, who sing decently in a contemporary style and work their gags with professional polish even when they don’t land. Despite the shoddiness of its inspiration, We Will Rock You would muster more lunkheaded charm if it were not so gaseously inflated to a close to three-hour marathon of mediocrity.

It’s something of a marvel that prospective New York backers were able to resist such a pre-sold branding opportunity with a proven track record of runaway success and find other places to lose their mad money. To all appearances, the opening night audience was mightily pleased, collectively brandishing the free glow sticks provided, as if already in thrall to the dominion of the “Globalsoft“  here on this all-too tangible iEarth. 

Director, Story and Script: Ben Elton

Music and Lyrics: Queen

Musical Staging & Choreographer: Arlene Phillips

Original Production Designer: Mark Fisher

Lighting Designer: Willie Williams

Costume Designer: Tim Goodchild

Sound Designer: Bobby Aitken

Video Directors: Mark Fisher & Willie Williams

Hair and Make-Up Design: John “Jack” Curtin

A Center Theatre Group presentation