BWW Reviews: WE WILL ROCK YOU at PPAC Lives Up to Its Title
It's not every rock band or musical act that could successfully create a theater musical based on its widely varying songs. There has to be a certain uniformity, power and resonance to the music, all of the music, carrying through many songs, rather than just one or two "greatest hits." And they have to be songs that can be strung together to create a cohesive whole that works as a musical with a plot, story, characters, etc. If there's any proof that it can be done, and done smashingly well, it's found in We Will Rock You, the "rock theatrical" created through the combination of British writer Ben Elton and the music of Queen.
Utilizing twenty-four of Queen's smash hit songs, We Will Rock You opened in London's West End in 2002. Since then, the rock spectacle has sold over fifteen million tickets worldwide while playing in twenty countries. The musical is the ninth longest running show in the West End and in 2011 received the Audience Award for Most Popular Show at the Olivier Awards, the British equivalent of the Tony's.
While writer Ben Elton updated the musical's book for the U.S. tour, the central story remains the same. It is the distant future and the planet earth has become known only as iPlanet. There are only glimmers of the past in this new world were globalization has taken over every aspect of people's lives. There is no more free will or free thought. Everyone dresses the same, talks the same, listens to and watches the same entertainment, and even thinks the same thoughts. Individuality is forbidden. And, worst of all, as far as this musical is concerned, there is no more real music, including and especially rock and roll.
In fact, rock and roll is but a distant memory, something heard about in legends and myths. That is, except for a group of people called the "Bohemians." They are desperately trying to find and bring back to life the true music, the real music, of rock and roll. They've set up headquarters at the ruins of the Hard Rock Café in Las Vegas, a shrine to rock and roll, no doubt, and they await the arrival of one they call "the dreamer." Of course, as We Will Rock You begins, we meet the dreamer as well, as he struggles to make sense out of the voices in his head, which we instantly recognize as lyrics from our modern-day songs. The music of the past is speaking to him in dreams, imploring and encouraging him to go on a hero's journey, to seek out the long-lost rock guitar, last musical instrument on Earth, and bring rock and roll back to the masses. Doing so will not only bring real music back to their lives, it will also free them from the chains of the massive, sinister corporation that controls their lives.
If some of that sounds awfully familiar, that's because it is. Really familiar. There are shades of many, many other movies, plays and musicals, from Footloose to The Matrix. And lots of others in between. If there's a flaw in this show, it's the tissue-paper-thin plot. There's a "chosen one," called "the dreamer," who suddenly realizes that he's destined to save the world. He meets a woman with whom he will fight the good fight, and fall in love, of course. There is a band of scrappy rebels, determined to stand up for the rebellion, the revolution, whatever you want to call it. And of course, there's a big, bad villain, at the head of a massive conglomerate that controls everything. Oh, and her evil right-hand-man too, doing all her dirty work. Yup, been there and done that.
But, don't let that dissuade you, because the plot is not the reason to see this show. There are in fact, many great reasons to see it, and you should. It's hilarious, entertaining, and an astounding spectacle from beginning to end, a non-stop, head-banging rock and roll journey, filled with music, lights, lots of soul and plenty of heart.
One reason there is so much heart and soul is the fantastic cast, all of whom deliver excellent performances while at the same time knocking the vocals out of the park. As our hero, Galileo, Brian Justin Crum is a force to be reckoned with. Just in terms of the acting side of the role, he handles everything perfectly, delivering the right amounts of insecurity, fear, courage and fight. But, when he starts to sing, it's his vocal power that really impresses. His performances of "We Will Rock You" and "We Are the Champions" are nothing short of incredible. While he portrays such a likeable and charming young man in Galileo, every time his booming voice fills the theater, he reveals himself worthy of the title of "rock-god."
What good is a rock-god without his rock-goddess, right? There is certainly one here in Ruby Lewis, as Scaramouche. When she sings her first number, "Somebody to Love," she almost immediately brings the entire house down, leaving no audience member untouched by her stunning voice. As an actress, she gives a wonderful, hilarious performance as the snarky, sarcastic and sometimes cynical woman who comes to believe in both "the dreamer" and the power of rock and roll. When Lewis and Crum get together for a duet, in "Under Pressure," "Who Wants to Live Forever," and "Hammer to Fall," it is the show's best moments. Their chemistry is exceptional, second in impressiveness only to how well their voices sound together.
Beyond those two, the cast is completely filled with equally talented performers. There is not a weak link to be found anywhere among them. Jacqueline B. Arnold is perfect as the big bad Killer Queen, head of the world-dominating corporation. She's perfectly sinister but in a kind of lovable and hilarious way. As her henchman, Khashoggi, P.J. Griffith is wonderfully smarmy and evil, another fun bad guy who the audience loves to hate.
The band of Bohemians is led by a trio of characters, all named after our own rock icons. There's Brit (named after Britney Spears, and there are many hilarious lines alluding to this), played by Jared Zirilli. Then there's his girlfriend Oz (named after Ozzy Osborne), played by Erica Peck, and guy named Buddy (you guessed it, named after Buddy Holly), played by Ryan Knowles. The three of them are brilliant, putting their all into these supporting roles. Knowles, especially, gets the funniest lines and most hilarious moments in the play, hitting each and every one of them perfectly. While Zirilli and Peck don't get to have as much comic fun, they do get to sing more and they have great voices, especially Peck, demonstrating a gorgeous voice and impressive vocal prowess.
A number of ensemble members also populate this world, playing teens, other Boheminas and members of the corporation's board of directors. They are extremely talented singers and dancers, never seeming out of sync or out of place. There are exceptional ensemble numbers, like the early "Radio Ga Ga," where a choir-like group sings the praises of the internet and all things uniform. It's an ode to a complete lack of individuality or free-thought. And it's kind of eerie how much it seems somehow fitting in our own society today.
There are in fact many things about the future-set show that resonate with today's culture and society. While it may not be the focus of the show to deliver important messags about where we are and where we're headed, those messages still come across loud and clear. What comes across even louder is the spectacular rock and roll music. Some of the songs are instantly recognizable, some are not, but every musical number is a heart-stopping demonstration of the sheer power of great music, played and sung by exceptionally talented performers, working together in perfect harmony.
Tickets for We Will Rock You, which runs through April 20th, can be purchased at the PPAC box office (220 Weybosset Street in downtown Providence),online at www.ppacri.org, and by phone at (401) 421-ARTS (2787). Tickets are $77 - $40. Box office hours are Monday through Friday, 10am to 5pm; Saturday, 10am to 2pm; and through curtain time(s) on show days.
Pictured: Ruby Lewis and Brian Justin Crum. Photo by Paul Kolnik.