Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
“We Will Rock You”… Not: Queen musical at the Ahmanson an epic fail
First, let me say that I love the music of Queen. It was the soundtrack of my college years. I have been a Freddie Mercury fan a long time, and mourned his passing. I even made sure my children, as they hit teen status, knew and respected the band’s work. I do not hate loud music, gratingly amazing guitar riffs, or rock concert lighting effects. I need to say this lest anyone feel that my take on “We Will Rock You,” the musical with story and script by Ben Elton using music by Queen, has anything to do with being a fuddy duddy and just not liking the atmosphere or the music.
I say this so you will believe me when I tell you “We Will Rock You,” just opened at the Ahmanson, takes band-tribute musicals to a new low. It’s worse than boring: it’s stupid. The jokes sound like they were written by a junior high class clown just discovering sex. The dialogue was purloined from a bad Disney Channel sitcom. The script is riddled with cliches, and steals (rather badly) from a dozen film and television plots. All of this is gussied up with elaborate effects and fantastical costumes and wigs, but it doesn’t matter. It still has no soul, and – worse when discussing this sophisticated band’s work – no intellect.
The story, which must be explained in super-titles before the curtain rises, is that we are visiting a post-apocalyptic earth run by a thinly disguised Microsoft (Globalsoft, in the script), which has banned all instruments, and anything but computer-generated pop music as well as having created a world where people’s relationships are entirely online. This world’s rebels (bohemians, of course) try to escape torture and reeducation by the rather Tron-like enforcers led by Khashoggi, a man who looks like Max Headroom with feet, working for Globalsoft’s narcissistic leader, even as they search for genuine life through something they’ve heard of called rock music.
Our hero, who has given himself the name Galileo Figaro (get it?), hears the lyrics of every possible kind of rock song in his head, and spews them forth in notebooks. He escapes his society along with a female loner he dubs Scaramouche, and they run to Las Vegas and the crumbling Hard Rock Cafe (only one of several product placements in this thing) to find a bohemian group who have named themselves after stars of our era – including a dumb, muscly man known as Brit (for Britney Spears, because that’s funny) and his ditsy female sidekick Oz (for Ozzy Osborne, cue more laughs). They and their friends, especially the deep voiced Buddy (yes, Holly and the Crickets), gather rock-and-roll memorabilia they proudly mispronounce and wait for “the one” who will help them find the last remaining instrument on earth.
The cast of this thing approaches it earnestly enough, though the dialogue doesn’t give them much to work with. Brian Justin Crum, as Galileo, does sing just close enough to Mercury’s stylings to make the songs he sings work. He gives his character an earnest energy, as if by sheer dint of belief he could turn this show into something worth all that effort. Ruby Lewis, as Scaramouche, has little genuine chemistry with Crum, but that may be in part because there is not much in the script to help. She sings with great power, though a few of the great lines get swallowed.
The chorus, which has a phenomenal number of costume changes, sings and dances with abandon, even as – on occasion – their costumes break. Jared Zirilli does what he can to make Brit a dopey kind of funny. Ryan Knowles has the best timing of anyone as Buddy, and a kind of wired gleefulness which makes him engaging even as what he’s saying isn’t. Jacqueline B. Arnold proves imposing as the “Killer Queen,” leader of the bad guys, but has issues singing the low parts of some songs. Everyone is trying here, including the designers of the elaborate video backdrops and the over-the-top costumes. It just isn’t worth the effort, at least in-between musical moments.
Thankfully, there are those great songs, at least most of the time. In the early scenes Elton has seen fit to rewrite the timeless lyrics to fit into his lame storyline – an unfortunate choice. Still, the band, led by conductor Nate Patten, is very good indeed, and some of the famed solo riffs live up to one’s anticipation.
Of course, the best and most famous of Queen’s work is saved for last. Unable to fit “Bohemian Rhapsody” into the weird storyline, they actually use supertitles to convince the audience to stay for an encore, because it will be that – the one song everyone has waited all night to hear. And this becomes the revelation: when all they have to do is render a song, this cast is actually very good. Why in heaven didn’t they do that all night long, rather than dampening everyone’s spirits with such a lame plot and script?
How this musical won an Olivier is beyond me. Makes me a little nervous about what is being considered quality in London these days, if it was for anything other than a technical element.
What: “We Will Rock You” When: Through August 24, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $120 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org