We Will Rock You takes you on the journey into the future, where rock music is dead and technology has overtaken all individuality thanks to an evil corporation called Globalsoft. There is, of course, a rebel among them, who has chosen to break out of his hashtag and backslash laden name and instead goes by Galileo (Brian Justin Crum). Crum’s vocals are front and center in his first solo, “I Want to Break Free” but when the singing stops he finds himself only able to give two emotions; earnest or angst, and sometimes both at once. He is soon joined by Scaramouche (Ruby Lewis) who equally meets his vocals on her first big outing in “Somebody to Love”, but then finds her character all over the place and relatively unlikeable when left to speak on stage.
What follows these big voiced introductions is the plague of many a jukebox musical; how to move all the characters and set pieces into the right position to play the next hit song and try to do so organically. With a plot that includes the evil leader of Globalsoft, The Killer Queen (Jacqueline B. Arnold) and her henchman Khashoggi (P.J. Griffith) trying to stop Galileo and Scaramouche from finding a legendary Ax that will bring rock music back from the grave, and the band of bohemians led by Brit (Jared Zirilli) and Oz (Erica Peck) who try and help them, the transitions from song to song are rocky, at best. The book by Ben Elton tries hard to justify the inclusion of the biggest hits such as “Under Pressure” and “Another One Bites the Dust”, but more often than not the emotional beats don’t quite get the characters, or the story, juxtaposed in the right place to slyly launch into a rendition of “Fat Bottom Girls”.
Which isn’t to say it never works. There are smooth transitions in such hits as “You’re My Best Friend” and “No-One But You”. The problem that plagues the production at this point is the staging. As hard as it tries to give you that rock concert feel, much of the stage space is wasted. On the larger, faster numbers the chorus is brought out mostly to fill the back of the bare stage and give you basic, music video ready dance moves, while lighting towers descend from the rafters to try and blind the audience into thinking they are at an actual rock concert in an actual stadium. The more intimate, quieter numbers don’t fare any better, as characters wander the stage or use the basic, tour ready sets as stepping-stones as they sing their tune.
There is a moment early on in We Will Rock You that blames the lack of individuality, death of rock and roll, and technology oriented dystopia that it takes place in on the commercialism of American Idol. Ironically this is just the sort of show that one can expect to find future 7th place finishers belting out the biggest hits from Queen, as the latest jukebox musical tries to lure you into the seats with its specific brand of band nostalgia. While there are certainly moments that soar, it's ultimately a shiny commercial itself.
There are some bright spots, though, to help get you through as you wait for your favorite Queen song. Tim Goodchild’s costume design is wonderfully crafted and full of character (check out the Bohemian gang and try and find Madonna’s famous bra or Britney Spear’s infamous pink underwear). Jared Zirilli’s Brit and Ryan Knowles’ Buddy are fully committed, crafted comedic performances. There is some clever wordplay and use of hit song titles as dialogue sprinkled throughout, and several running jokes that, while all ultimately overused, still manages to get a laugh out of the audience. Which raises the ultimate point on We Will Rock You - the audience had a great time.
When it comes to these band-based musicals, its easy to find all their theatrical faults and shortcomings. We Will Rock You has many, from a lack of inspired direction or scenic design, an awkward pacing and completely out there plot. At the end of the show, though, the audience is on their feet, singing along. It is, after all, the music of Queen. While no one can ever really do Freddie Mercury justice, it speaks to the power of the music that even two hours of the best karaoke versions of the legendary band is still a better time than most nights out.
The national tour of Queen and Ben Elton’s We Will Rock You will play at the Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre, July 15 through August 24, 2014.