BWW Reviews: WE WILL ROCK YOU National Tour Hits Washington, DC
Ben Elton's musical, We Will Rock You, has been something of a phenomenon on London's West End. The production recently closed after a twelve year run, the longest of any show at the Dominion Theatre. Now, North American audiences have the chance to figure out what all of the fuss is about with an ongoing national touring production that's currently playing at Washington, DC's Warner Theatre.
Featuring songs written and made popular by members of Queen -and in one case Queen and David Bowie - incorporated into Elton's original futuristic story, the musical examines what life would be like without freedom of personal expression, including through music. The era of rock and roll music (and music of all kinds, really) and other forms of individual expression are all but a distant memory in the world we see depicted onstage. Most records of society as we know it have been destroyed and there's only a limited concept of what music 'is.'
Citizens of this new world, controlled by the corporate and totalitarian-like Globalsoft, have access to technological advances (embodied in video designs by Mark Fisher and Willie Williams) and social media platforms of all sorts to facilitate the creation of a homogenous and highly monitored society under the leadership of Killer Queen (the appropriately cartoon-like but somewhat rigid and vocally underwhelming Jacqueline B. Arnold) and her cohorts like Khashoggi (P.J. Griffith). Any exhibitions of individual creativity (musical, fashion, or otherwise) result in arrests as our protagonists Galileo (Brian Justin Crum) and Scaramouche (Ruby Lewis) quickly learn. They bond and - together with a pre-existing, similarly-minded underground group of Bohemians donning Tim Goodchild's outlandish costumes - drive a resistance movement that's not afraid to risk it all despite the inherent dangers. The rebels learn as much as they can (with only limited access to fragments of information) about what music was and the creative forces behind it (Queen, for one), and find a means to make music again despite the restrictions. They set out to find a lone musical instrument - an electric guitar at a now abandoned Graceland - using clues in Galileo's dreams to better realize any opportunities to create new music.
There's no question that musicals such as this one have a built-in audience. Queen's anthem-like music - whether you're a rock fan or not - is probably something we've all been exposed to at one point or another. Tongue-in-cheek references to recognizable things in contemporary popular culture - everything from names of popular songs, artists, American Idol, Miley Cyrus' twerking, Facebook and Twitter - find their place in this musical and take the potential for popular appeal to another level. If one is to go by the audience reaction at last night's opening performance in DC, Queen's music and jokes about 'things we know' certainly get a reaction and a positive one at that.
Only - ah, only - here's the problem. What we have is a thin book that relies too heavily on a few jokes, which are stretched way too thin. There's a problem when numerous scenes featuring the Bohemians are comprised of the no doubt hardworking cast listing recognizable things (Brittney Spears, Shakira, names of pop songs from now and yesteryear) for what seems like an eternity. Forced and somewhat tedious interpersonal conflicts between our archetypal protagonists Galileo and Scaramouche - predictably the outcast and the female rebel who doesn't care what anyone thinks that end up falling for each other - don't help matters. Neither does the fact that each scene seems to be written only to provide an excuse for another Queen number. Don't get me wrong though, they're fun to hear. They just don't really move the story along. While I give kudos to Elton for at least attempting to write an original story - even it borrows heavily from other ones about dystopian societies - and provide commentary on the need for artistic expression, he shoots himself in the foot given that the story he's presenting is largely formulaic.
Additionally, while our Bohemians argue for authentic freedom of expression and 'real' music without any of that 'autotuning,' Bobby Aitken's sound design for this show - although crisp, very loud and clear - ensures the live vocals/music sound largely artificial except for in the final few moments of the show when our cast takes on some "Bohemian Rhapsody" post-curtain call. While this design choice may be an artistic one given that we're immersed in a society that's manmade and values everyone thinking/sounding exactly the same, it's a problem when the very Bohemians who want to go back to the way they think it was, come off as sounding very, well, processed. To be clear, this is absolutely not a problem I associate with the no doubt largely talented performers - the cast or the tremendously solid and rocking band under the direction of Nate Patten.
Crum and Lewis are both powerhouse singers that do considerable justice to Queen's many recognizable songs. Standouts include Crum's "Who Wants to Live Forever," which highlights his vocal range, power, and emotional intensity and Lewis' rich and pleading leading vocals on "Somebody to Love." Sound design aside, there's no doubt these two have vocal talent in spades and I'd love to hear them perform the music unplugged at some point. Crum, in particular, also manages to carve out some semblance of a three dimensional character with his Galileo and Lewis certainly nails Scaramouche's acerbic tongue. As many of the Bohemians also have time in the spotlight, some make the most of it including Jared Zirilli (Brit) and Erica Peck (Oz), reveling in the chance to play what are highly comedic roles.
The hardworking ensemble brings energy and life to the many choral numbers and make clear what fun it might be to perform in such a zany show. Whatever I may have thought of the sound design choices in the ensemble numbers (let's just say the rich sound they achieved last night defied the number of people onstage), there's no doubt that they were not only fun to listen to, but watch as the group performed Arlene Phillips' choreography. Willie Williams' lighting design also ensures a rock concert-like atmosphere in the theatre and adds to the potential for the audience to feel like it's having a good time.
Overall, I would say - look - while the show may not be one that's ever to attain much critical acclaim, there's no doubt there's something in it that works for a lot of people. When the show involves an array of talented performers, it can be a fun time out for many and even curmudgeons (myself included) can appreciate the talent onstage that make the most of what they've been given. If this kind of show gets people into venues to experience live musical theatre - even those that may not like the art form - there's something to be said about that. Even when the video screens malfunctioned last night and the production had to stop to allow for some technical fixes, the audience showed great enthusiasm for getting the show started again. Enthusiasm isn't a bad thing.
Running Time: 2 hours and 25 minutes including an intermission.
We Will Rock You plays at the Warner Theatre - 513 13th Street in Washington, DC - through June 8, 2014. For tickets call 1-800-551-7328, stop by the box office, or purchase them online via Ticketmaster.
Photo: Cast of We Will Rock You; by Paul Kolnik.