All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Writer and director Ben Elton knows what he’s doing every step of the way as he adapts one of the oldest plot lines in the book while forging a theater musical that incorporates rock classics introduced and made popular by the rock band, Queen.
Those classics, and the performance they’re given by the talented company taking the national tour of “We Will Rock You” across the United States, are enough to make Elton’s jukebox show a satisfying theater experience that has energy, offhand wit, and a will to provide fun for an audience whether its members are well-versed in Queen’s work or not. “We Will Rock You” is far from a work of art, but it is a breezy and solid piece of entertainment, which is all it strives to be, and enough of a concert-cum-show to earn the audiences it’s been getting in London for the past 15 years as well as any new fans it garners in the U.S.
I don’t want overestimate the theatrical value of “We Will Rock You.” Its story careens between naïve and silly. Its scenes featuring both revolutionaries and repressive powers that be are transparently simplistic to the point of being laughable, I think intentionally so. Its sets, costumes, and wigs look as if they come more from a Halloween store than a human’s closet. It contains some bits that were better left in Elton’s imagination, e.g. the mispronunciations of Harley, video tape, television, and other words, a joke that makes no sense in a world where everyone texts and where all other names and things from what in “We Will Rock You” is a past era are said plainly and correctly.
I also don’t want to underestimate how enjoyable “We Will Rock You” is. Elton makes it clear from the outset the book doesn’t matter much, that it’s just a frame on which to hang a story that leads to some fine Queen numbers. In the long run, the fun of watching the actors perform, the quality of the singing and overall musical presentation, Arlene Phillip’s muscular choreography, and Elton’s more tongue in cheek comedy prevail, so the good time provided outweighs any tripe in the story line or purported tribute to individuality.
Elton sets his musical in a future in which the world is run as a corporate entity managed by a board of directors, policed by a force that looks like it escaped from a George Lucas movie, and presided over by the Killer Queen who takes her wardrobe and grooming tips more from Grace Jones than, for example, DuPont’s current CEO, Ellen Kullman.
In Elton’s construct, a company called Globalsoft controls everything from freedom and work assignments to the music people hear. As is usual in plots that involve absolute dictatorships that find ways to eliminate or neutralize those who make an allegedly dangerous attempt at individuality, only a few are depicted as discontent enough to want or search for anything other than Globalsoft prescribes. Those few are enough to rouse the suspicion and ire of the Killer Queen and Globalsoft’s corporate paranoia. The establishment needs the rebels quashed to insure its otherwise maintainable dominance.
Teenagers in Globalsoft’s international hegemony are called Ga-Ga Kids (and were named so by Elton because of a Queen song and before the pop star Lady Gaga made her splash). They wear neat yellow and white cheerleader outfits and look like willing recruits to Up With People or casting extras from a 1940s college movie. Naturally Elton has them act like robots or like sorority snobs who have their own way of penalizing people for not doing what everyone else so happily does. Phillips creates a really good dance that illustrates the Ga Ga Kids’ conformity.
The squeaky clean society is merely a shallow set-up Elton constructs to make room for heroes in the form of individuals, rebels who not only resist yielding to Globalsoft’s vanilla existance but want to restore something forbidden, something they’ve heard about vaguely but is now prohibited. That something is rock music, and for some reason, one character, called Galileo as a tribute to the middle part of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” has telepathic knowledge of every band and every song lyric ever heard on a classic rock FM station. He feels a king or a leader calling him to action, just as another character, Brit, senses there is a powerful being who will successfully find the hiding place where rock music and its last musical instruments are hidden.
Elton’s script is basically a slapdash affair to get elemental plot details efficiently out of the way so music can proceed, but he shows wit the way he includes bygone lyrics into Galileo’s speech and peppers “We Will Rock You’s” general dialogue with double entendres, puns, and other sources of verbal humor. Most of the talk in “We Will Rock You” is silly blather, but Elton includes enough well-conceived jokes for a crowd who will pick up on his riffs.
That’s how you know he is aware of the this-will-do nature of the script and ancient society-is-oppressive-and-out-to-get-the-rebels plot line. Elton is businesslike when and where he has to be but is generous enough to throw bones to those who want to have a clever, informed laugh along the way.
Globalsoft called the world it rules the iPlanet, a mixture of corporate symbols if there ever was one, and all living on it are expected to lead clean, happy lives in accordance with corporate needs and rules. At least Elton did not bore us with one more futuristic community where people live in caves next to dirt roads and wear rags. iPlanet is fairly comfortable, just drearily dull like a totally Stepford world that gets its culture from Muzak and spends its leisure time in malls buying items Globalsoft manufactures. The rebels want more. They want some emotion, and boy or girl, like Cyndi Lauper, they just want to have fun. Why Globalsoft is threatened by rock is mystery. Elton, in his way, makes a good point about all kinds of prohibition when he shows authorities cracking down on a particular type of music and the rowdies who crave it. If you are looking for a more serious and more insidious take on politics and popular music, take a look at Tom Stoppard’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” and see how the Communist ban on rock music caused some to become, or be judged, dissidents and was a factor that led to the fall of Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia.
The rebels in “We Will Rock You” are all of a kind. There is no one who hears past echoes of Noel Coward or unwittingly hums passages from Mozart, Dave Brubeck, or Patsy Cline, only rockers who don the T-shirts, jeans, leather jackets, and other costumes and accoutrements from the 1970s and ’80s and instinctively revere all of the trappings that went with rock from the era, a time when Queen and its iconic writer and lead singer, Freddie Mercury, would be in their prime. Mercury died from complications from AIDS in the ’90s. Two other members of Queen, drummer Roger Taylor and guitarist and songwriter Brian May advised and worked with Mike Dixon on the musical arrangements for “We Will Rock You.”
The rebels have heard of and can show you examples of items that are obsolete in Globalsoft’s future, e.g. motorcycles, televisions, VHS tapes, and musical instruments, the last of which Globalsoft bans from being seen on the iPlanet, but their interest in them in to re-create the sound of a jangly guitar and partake in the vocals of Mercury and his contemporaries from both sides of the Atlantic. The U.S tour is set on American soil, so the Tottenham Court Road tube stop from the London mounting is replaced by U.S. rock landmarks like Las Vegas and Memphis, home of Graceland. The Freddie Mercury statue that appears in Montreux, Switzerland and atop London’s Dominion Theatre where “We Will Rock You” has played for more than a decade, somehow is transported to a secret place where all of the rock music extant in America has been stashed. Elton’s script may be flimsy, but the author is meticulous when it comes to the history of rock and homage to rock idols. And, you have to agree with the story’s sentiment towards individuality and freedom of choice.
As the rebels, led by Brit and a character named Buddy, after Buddy Holly, come closer to finding their Grail, a fully functional electric guitar they can use to restore rock music to the denied masses, the Killer Queen and the head of her secret police, Khashoggi, accelerate their efforts to find them. They especially want to capture Galileo and the woman companion he named Scaramouche (“Bohemian Rhapsody” again), who escaped from a mental hospital where Globalsoft confined them.
As I said, the plot is old hat.
What’s important in “We Will Rock You” are the musical numbers, Queen’s music coming alive in grandly entertaining fashion.
All of the hits are accounted for, including “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which makes an appearance that is not mentioned in the Academy of Music program. (Elton has the Killer Queen call the rebels “Bohemians,” and the rebels refer to their expected success at finding the hidden treasures of rock history “the Rhapsody.”) They are welcome to our ears. They remind of how talented Mercury, May, and other members of Queen were at creating tunes and presenting lyrics that are superior to most rock songs. They exude an energy that makes one appreciate the Queen canon and want to hear more of it. You don’t so much become nostalgic for Queen music as you become respectful of it. This band put out fine goods, and Elton is to be thanked for providing a show in which Queen’s outstanding compositions — “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” “Killer Queen,” “Headlong,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “I Want it All,” “These are the Days of Our Lives,” “We Are the Champions,” and “We Will Rock You” — can be performed as a collection, one that feels like the live presentation of a Queen greatest hits album. Probably because that’s what “We Will Rock You” is, a digest of Queen’s finest.
The touring cast is uniformly great. The performances that stand out the most are Ryan Knowles’s as Buddy and Ruby Lewis’s as Scaramouche. Knowles, rail thin, so narrow he can be one of those guys who fit in skinny jeans, speaks with a Wolfman Jack bass, just a tad less scratchy, and delivers innocuous lines in a variety of ways. He is particularly good at putting a different spin on his tone and rhythm when he answers a question, “I don’t know.” Buddy is both co-conspirator and comic relief. In Knowles’s keeping, he bursts into life and holds attention any time he’s on stage. Knowles also does the best he can with Elton’s worst gambit, the mispronunciations mentioned earlier. Although his speaking voice is deep and resonant, Knowles has a talent for pitching his voice wherever it needs to be.
Ruby Lewis takes a serious approach to Scaramouche, one that she could use to play any lead role in a Broadway musical.
Lewis takes command of the stage when she’s on it. She easily conveys the intellect and non-nonsense feminism of her character. Her line readings drip with sarcasm, but Lewis always keeps her retorts and rejoinders in the right tone. Some of her dialogue is overbearing, but Lewis keeps her character on a human scale and earns a lot of respect for the fidelity and natural air she gives Scaramouche.
No one can hope to do more than approximate the great singing of Freddie Mercury, but Brian Justin Crum has a lovely voice and brings power and sentiment to his musical presentations.
Jared Zirilli adds to the fun with his broad and lively performance at Brit. Jacqueline B. Arnold makes the most out of all her production numbers and earns respect as the Killer Queen. P.J. Griffith is properly oily and menacing as Khashoggi.
Mark Fisher’s set makes the most of clutter while also giving a fine impression of the landmarks that needs to represented in “We Will Rock You.” Tim Goodchild’s costumes are right for the time but are a tad one-note in their style and design. Goodchild shows wit in creating the Ga Ga Kid’s outfits, in his Dragon Lady attire for the Killer Queen, and in his metallic, formal look for Khashoggi.
I’m sure it’s fashionable to dismiss “We Will Rock You” as minor fluff, a jukebox show that has you sit through a hackneyed and elementary book to get to Queen’s classics, but the show deserves better. It is legitimately entertaning in spite of some cliches. Elton’s story at least gives you people and a cause to root for. The music, especially when Lewis and Arnold are at work, is wonderful to enjoy again. Knowles and Zirilli keep things on a comic keel. Crum makes a likeable hero who you can support as a person and as a rebel.
“We Will Rock You” runs through Sunday, Jan. 19 at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 2 and 8 p.m. Satuday and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $105.50 to $25 and can be obtained by calling 215-731-3333 or going online to www.kimmelcenter.org/broadway.