BWW Reviews: Theatre Under the Stars' WE WILL ROCK YOU is High-Voltage Entertainment
Theatre Under the Stars is rocking the new year with the National Tour of Ben Elton's book musical We Will Rock You, which proudly boats the songs of Queen as its score. The show had its world premiere in London in 2002, and celebrated its 10th anniversary on May 14, 2012 at London's Dominion Theatre. Despite being panned by critics, this raucous, loud, and irresistibly fun rock musical has proven to be an audience favorite. Last night's Houston premiere of the piece was a sparkling example of why this show has had such staying power.
Even though I had a blast with the show, I have to admit Ben Elton's story and book for We Will Rock You is complete schlock. It is weakly constructed around a score of Queen's greatest hits, and tells a tale that comes across as a simplified version of The Matrix's futuristic, dystopian plot. On the planet Earth, now referred to as an iplanet, Globalsoft, a menacing all-powerful and all-knowing corporation, has eradicated almost all original thought and imagination. In doing so, art and rock n' roll are but a distant memory. However, a young dreamer, calling himself Galileo Figaro, longs to break free. Shortly after graduating from school, he befriends a young woman with similar ideas and gives her the name Scaramouche. Running from Globalsoft, the duo encounters two bohemians, Oz and Brit, and is taken to their stronghold, a deserted Hard Rock Café in the remnants of Las Vegas. There, the revolution begins, and Galileo discovers that he has been chosen by prophecy to bring rock n' roll back to the world.
Overall, it's not an original story. In fact, it's rather familiar. Yet, what makes Ben Elton's writing not a complete wash is the innumerable pop culture references and song title puns worked into the book. Some are vastly over-repeated (i.e. "Britney Spears died for us"), but all easily earn smirks, chuckles, and even guffaws. My guess is that Ben Elton knew no one would take this rehashed and borrowed plot seriously, so he went the extra mile to make it as campy and cheesy as possible. After all, no one is buying a ticket to We Will Rock You for any reason other than hearing the hits of Queen sung live. During the performance, the critic in me really found the book to be quite awful, but the Queen fan in me keep yelling, "Just have fun and rock out!" Needless to say, the Queen fan won out, and I simply reveled in entertainment for entertainment's sake.
Ben Elton puts a strong foot forward with the direction of the piece. He has coached the cast to be vibrant and full of energy. Playing caricatures more than characters, Ben Elton has them power through the book scenes and keeps the audience anticipating each successive musical performance. Once in the musical numbers, Ben Elton lets the cast sparkle and shine with vivacious, captivating performances. Furthermore, his work melds well with the work of Musical Staging & Choreographer Arlene Phillips and Associate Director and Associate Choreographer Tracey Flye's. As a team they create a seamless visual aesthetic for movement in the piece. One of my favorite details is that the choreography, staging, and direction for scenes inside the world of Globalsoft are filled with stiff movement and rigid, crisp angles. In opposition to that, once the show and characters break away from Globalsoft, everything becomes more fluid and free.
Brian Justin Crum as Galileo and Ruby Lewis as Scaramouche own the evening and bring the house down time and time again. Their characters are both childish and youthfully immature, which ensures several moments of humor. Mostly, their characters are flat and stilted, but it's their phenomenal rock vocal performances that impress audiences. Brian Justin Crum, with a sparkling rock tenor, opens the show with a rollicking and invigorating rendition of "I Want to Break Free," and Ruby Lewis brings the house down with a vivacious performance of "Somebody to Love." Their lively duet on "Under Pressure" is filled charismatic energy, as is their fun take on "You're My best Friend." In the second act, the pair stops the show with boisterous performances of "Who Wants to Live Forever" and "Hammer to Fall." Individually and as a duo, both Brian Justin Crum and Ruby Lewis exude tangible electricity that sets that truly sets audience ablaze and leaves us rooting for them.
Serving as mentors and friends to the leads, Danny Balkwill as Brit, Erica Peck as Oz, and Ryan Knowles as Buddy all stood out by giving dynamic performances as. In fact, as Banny Balkwill and Erica Peck led the company through a riveting performance of "I Want It All," it took everything I had not to stand, cheer, and sing along. Similarly, Jacqueline B. Arnold's villainous Killer Queen and P.J. Griffith's Khashoggi are formidable and fun foes to the likeable rebel bohemians. Almost as if watching a British Panto, I fought the urge to boo and hiss each time they took the stage. Due to the weak writing, their looming threat is never truly ominous or intimidating, which allows the audience to easily cheer for them as they collectively create spunky spectacles with numbers like "Killer Queen," "A Kind of Magic," and "Another One Bites the Dust."
Lighting Design by Willie Williams captures the rambunctious rock n' roll concert vibe, and even blinds the audience with bright strobes flashing into the audience from time to time. Bobby Aitken's Sound Design is quite possibly the loudest one I've ever heard in the Hobby Center, and my ears were definitely ringing after the show. Despite this, almost every lyric is perfectly heard and showcases that it is well mixed, even if it is earsplitting. Tim Goodchild's Costume Design and John "Jack" Curtin's Hair and Make-Up Designs expertly give the impression of a not-so-distant future and do a fantastic job differentiating the two classes of characters in the production. The fun, funky use of colors, shapes, unique cuts, and metal accessories blends a punk rock aesthetic with a futuristic look to create visuals that appropriately fit into the world created on the stage.
If you're looking for powerful and innovative theatre, We Will Rock You simply is not the show for you. If you're looking for a high-voltage evening of entertainment, then you're sure to leave We Will Rock You energized and glad you saw the production. To fully enjoy We Will Rock You, audiences and critics alike should abandon critical thinking and just get lost in the show's brand of mindless theatrical candy.
WE WILL ROCK YOU, presented by Theatre Under the Stars, plays the Sarofim Hall at The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby Street, Houston, 77002 now through February 2, 2014. Performances are Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursdays, and Sundays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. For tickets and more information please visit http://www.tuts.com or call (713) 558-TUTS (8887).
All photos by Paul Kolnik. Photos courtesy of Theatre Under the Stars.