BWW Reviews: Queen's WE WILL ROCK YOU is King
There are 3 things you should know if you venture to see WE WILL ROCK YOU at The Hippodrome, which I strongly suggest that you do, and quickly, as it's only in town until the 20th:
1. The future is very much like the present, only moreso.
2. Embrace the paradox of singing and dancing about not being able to make music.
3. WE WILL ROCK YOU is not just for hard-core Queen fans, but for everyone who hums along when the radio plays Bicycle Race.
Creating a musical of songs that have already been written is tricky business. Having been persuaded by a dear friend to watch the movie Mamma Mia! this summer, I entered the theater excited, but with tempered expectations.
The static set promised a technically impressive show: the truss- scaffolding supporting light fixtures and speakers- completely obscured the beautiful Rococo proscenium arch of the stage, even encroaching on the closest box seats. Stretched across the scaffolding was a very large scrim, which had been painted with an image that looked as if it had been dropped in a puddle, rescued, hung on a drooping clothesline and then left out in the rain. I hoped it had something to do with the show.
When the house lights dimmed, the scrim painting became a projection screen, and we were greeted with a Star Wars-style introduction, which prepared us for the multi-media event this show proved to be. Afterwards, the scrim retracted and gave us a clear view of the stage. Throughout the show, that scrim came "in" and "out" and was lit variously to be a translucent screen, a surface for projections and an opaque cover for the stage. Another scrim covered the eight live musicians who were suspended in a row on a catwalk box that capped the set, so, because of how it was lit, you mostly didn't see the musicians, except when you did.
Wait, a live band for a Broadway-style show? Yes. Cirque du Soleil does it all the time.
Much of the "set" was projected on a large screen backdrop, so the physical pieces were fewer in number and more unobtrusively changed than otherwise: this could have been quite clunky. The physical sets and single pieces were impressive in detail and marriage of personality and functionality. In particular, a certain plume-embellished Cadillac throne deserves its own biography. The projections, both moving and stationary, contributed to the otherworldly feeling of the show, which is set 300 years in Earth's future.
Writer/director Ben Elton's theme and story, which resonate with those familiar with Isaac Asimov's book The Naked Sun. The Ramones' movie Rock 'n Roll High School, Graham Baese's book The Worst Band In The Universe, or Simon & Garfunkle's song The Sound of Silence, does an impressive job of stitching together 24 of Queen's most popular songs with relative ease. Some lyrics have been modified to conform to the plot, or to the gender of the character singing the song, but the songs are undamaged by the alteration. The show has been adapted to resonate with the US market, giving Ben Elton an opportunity also to update many topical references. "There is a scene where our two leads run away and discuss their loneliness and isolation," Elton says. "In 2013, it seemed ridiculous for two kids to discuss friendship without reference to Facebook. Young people now live in a world where it's possible to have many virtual 'friends' and 'likes' and yet still be entirely isolated and alone. The new dialogue with this changed emphasis brought the song You're My Best Friend into the show." The show, originally proposed by Robert De Niro to Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor, was co-created by May and Taylor along with Elton, whom they hand picked. Ben Elton's proficiency at comedy (MR. Bean, Black Adder, standup) enabled him to create a futuristic tongue-in-cheek "legend" for the show to use as a hub.
Much of the show's familiarity stems from its pop influences There are elements of video games, Star Trek, Mad Max, The Matrix, 2001: A Space Odessy, Star Wars, Tron, Barbarella , The Rocky Horror Show and Hair. The costumes are a visual feast of cultural references, and interfere very little with the energetically executed choreography. The GaGa Kids and Teen Queens owe much to The Jetsons; Kashoggi's attire is reminiscent of Starship Troopers, (and possibly Farscape), Gallileo might be be James Dean or Joey Ramone, Scaramouche's outfit looks like Pat Benatar combined with Corpse Bride, and the Killer Queen could step into a production of Tommy without a costume change.
Freddie Mercury is irreplaceable, but this carefully chosen group of performers does a really good job singing his songs. Brian Justin Crum as our protaganist, Gallileo Figaro, uses I Want To Break Free as his anthem to individuality. He's a powerful performer with a wonderful voice, and his facility in embodying every cool and troubled icon, rock and otherwise, adds to his likability as a character. Handing Somebody To Love to the lead female, Scaracmouche, (Ruby Lewis), backed by a group of antagonists (the Teen Queens) might sound like a risky choice, but it was natural, beautiful and inevitable. And does Ruby have a set of pipes! In this role, she's cute as a button in that angry goth-waif style that made Christina Ricci a star.
PJ Griffith, as the evil enforcer Kashoggi, had the kind of committed, slimy energy present in any good villain we love to hate. I was reminded of a young Rene Auberjonois: Benson, not Deep Space Nine. Jacqueline Arnold as Killer Queen is the grandiose, decadent ruler of cyber-reality. Rebellion in any form, especially individuality, will not be tolerated. Her motherboard-garbed Globalsoft Executives twirl, prance and fawn in social and sexual subservience. After our protagonists escape the horrors of sanctioned society, they find themselves in the ruins of the real world, where they meet two members of the rebel group known as Bohemians, Brit and Oz, played by Jared Zirilli and Erica Peck respectively. The Bohemians demonstrate a long-established couple-hood full of comedy and annoying habits, which fascinates the two leads who are new to actual human relationships. Brit and Oz take Gallileo and Scaramouche to their stronghold at the Vegas Hard Rock Cafe, which is covered with rock-n-roll stickers, banners, T-shirts and so forth in varying states of distress and decay (aha! the scrim!), telling them the legend of The Dreamer who will lead them to a mighty axe encased in stone, which will help them recapture The Vibe. Among these Bohemians is Buddy, who produces a relic, explains what he knows of it, of the legend, of the meanings of things, and is gleeful in his admission of all the things he doesn't know. Ryan Knowles as Buddy is charming and exuberant while he deftly imparts expository background information. Act I ends with a battle: Kashoggi has discovered the Bohemians' hideout.
The set of The Wasteland, which could have been borrowed from Stomp, Blade Runner or an Offspring tour, is a wreckage of lampposts, trash barrels and chain link and possibly a pristine package of Twinkies. The fencing is torn artfully to serve as a frame for guitarist Tristan Avakian who appears upstage in a smokey silhouetted killer solo during Who Wants To Live Forever.
The show is marketed as a "rock theatrical" which should suggest to audiences that they be prepared for a more interactive concert-style performance than is typical of a show termed "musical". The show is a triumphant salute to rock and roll, deserves the 12 year run it has enjoyed in London and should find tremendous success on its US tour. Baltimore is honored to host the show's American debut.
WE WILL ROCK YOU runs Tuesday the 15th through Sunday the 20th. Evening shows are 8:00 PM, Saturday Matinee at 2:00 PM and Sunday at 1:00 PM and 6:30 PM. Tickets are on sale at the Hippodrome Theatre Box Office, all Ticketmaster outlets, Charge-by-Phone 410-547-SEAT or 800-551-SEAT and online at www.Broadwayacrossamerica.com. The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center Hippodrome Theatre is located at 12 North Eutaw Street in Baltimore, Maryland.
Photo by Paul Kolnik