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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
We Will Rock You
By Rich Sienko
We Will Rock You opened in London in 2002 so we should be grateful we were spared this derivative mess until now. This retread jukebox musical doesn't have an original bone in its body. They say 'steal from the best,' but writer/director Ben Elton has pieced together ideas from not-exactly-the-best.
In 1989, Return To The Forbidden Planet, the first sci-fi, pop-rock, jukebox musical opened in London. Combining Shakespeare's The Tempest with the cult science fiction film Return To The Forbidden Planet. It was a hit and even won the Best Musical Olivier award over Miss Saigon. The Australian film Welcome To Woop Woop, focused on a group of outcasts living in a camp in the middle of nowhere who listens to show tunes. Then came Mamma Mia, the $2 billion worldwide mega-hit which is still playing in London since 1999. So it was inevitable there would be attempts to copy such success. Mr. Elton has misguidedly just combined what worked in these other shows, but here, he's forcing square pegs into round holes. What's missing from this recipe is the passion and artistry that the 80's rock group Queen which was led by the indelible Freddie Mercury had in spades.
Like Mamma Mia, it uses the music catalog of pop songs forced into a bare-bones story line as an excuse for a musical. Rather than Abba, we get the music of Queen. But this time there is no Shakespeare or classic movie story line to follow. Think American Idiot with an emphasis on the idiot.
The commercials bill the story as 'epic.' A group of bohemians live in solidarity in a far away camp to escape a Big Brother authoritarian state sometime in the future. Music has been banned and musical instruments have been eradicated. Although they have no idea what rock 'n' roll music is, they worship it's ideals. Why and how do they know what these ideals are? Details or logic aren't of any importance here. An idealist named Galileo Figaro, who dreams in music lyrics (get it?), meets a feisty rebel he renames Scaramouche. Love ensues. The two happen upon the misfits, fulfilling their prophecy of being led to the land of rock 'n' roll. They are then chased by The Killer Queen throughout the universe until she is destroyed by the unstoppable power of rock 'n ' roll music they discover in Graceland. I think. It's 'epically' inane.
On the bright side, we get the varied and passionate genius of Queen's music all their best know hits including "Radio Ga Ga," "Another One Bites The Dust," "We Are The Champions," the title song, and eventually "Bohemian Rhapsody." But it's hard to enjoy the classic music through the complete mess that is on stage.
Ben Elton's direction isn't any better than his book. Nothing gels. It feels like a bad dress rehearsal. The acting style is aimed at theme park audiences. Any time real voices start to emerge, they are destroyed by the spastic staging.
The choreography by Arlene Phillips is nothing more than energetic aerobics, just like her other other endeavors including Starlight Express and Saturday Night Fever. Granted, the restrictive bad sci-fi costumes by Tim Goodchild are tacky and laughable. But we're laughing at it not with it. Think 80's Devo new wave/punk on both counts. There are lots of bare midriffs and pelvic trusting but what's missing is raw sexuality. The production is antiseptic.
The production design by Mark Fisher is ineffectual. The sets and projections seem dwarfed on the enormous Ahmanson stage. There is one nice effect when the bohemians are captured and are being lobotomized by the Killer Queen. A zap of neon energy illuminates their skeletons on a scrim behind them. But overall, the production has the sensibility of the '80's told by old fogies. What they think is hip isn't.
The singing is completely of today, which may capitalize on the American Idol style riffing to sell tickets (there's even a joke about it), but it's not what Freddie Mercury or Queen were about. They rocked to the beat of their own drummer. This is a homogenized Glee episode.
The young vibrant cast is capable and every once in a while we get a glimpse of what could have been when they actually get to let go and just sing the voracious music. Led by Brian Justin Crum as Galileo who's hyperactive acting destroys his nice singing moments. When he just gets to wail, as in the title song, he certainly definitely does, but unfortunately there's no soul searching in his renditions. It's all style over substance.
Ruby Lewis, as the spunky Scaramouche, fares better. Her "Somebody To Love" is far more focused and soars through the theater. Her future is exciting. As the comic side-kicks Oz and Brit, Jared Zirilli and P. J. Griffith have good comic timing and fine voices.
Ryan Knowles, as the hippie Buddy, milks his songs for all they're worth. He uses this deep baritone speaking voice to full effect, but, like the others is stuck with mundane material.
The closest We Will Rock You comes to actually rocking happens after the show is over, when the cast returns to just sing "Bohemian Rhapsody." It's the highlight of the night. They should have just had a concert and saved us from all the other stupidity. Another one truly does bite the dust.
Editor's Note: For our British critic's somewhat more positive review go here .