In search of the lost chord: The cast of “We Will Rock You.” Photo by Paul Kolnik
Shall we talk about a musical that may not be worth talking about?
“We Will Rock You” is a dystopian, futuristic tale that weaves in and out of 24 songs written and recorded by Queen from the early 1970s through the 1980s. With the apparent blessings of guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor, Ben Elton hammered out the story and script. It’s possible that one of his inspirations was “Flash Gordon,” a film for which Queen composed a score in 1980, since the evil overlord Khashoggi (P.J. Griffith) seems as heartless as Ming the Merciless.
But that’s just a wild guess since the story wanders all over the map, not so much in search of a situation, it seems, as to find a suitable pitstop for another song. Bassist John Deacon comes off as the hero by default for not having his name attached to this project.
Most of Queen’s albums carried the disclaimer “No synthesizers,” so there’s a certain irony in that we find ourselves in a future (on the iPlanet and in the grips of GlobalSoft.com) where rock ‘n’ roll as we know it – freedom of expression, individuality, etc. – is forbidden. But then there’s Galileo Figaro (Brian Justin Crum) who keeps hearing snatches of old tunes in his head – all sorts of early pop hits familiar to anyone who ever listened to AM radio back when it was the only game in town.
Being treated for this disorder, Galileo is hospitalized and this is how he meets another patient, a Goth-punk-rocker he’ll soon christen Scaramouche (you get these references, don’t you?), played by Ruby Lewis – a diminutive powerhouse vocalist reminiscent of Pat Benatar.
These two renegades solidify their bond to “You’re My Best Friend,” a clear instance of the story having to make a big detour to accommodate the lyrics of the song. Meanwhile, there’s the Grace Jones-like Killer Queen (Jacqueline B. Arnold), with her GlobalSoft Executives and, later, in the seductive “Fat Bottomed Girls,” her Ladies in Waiting. This musical scoots all over the place.
Erica Peck and Jared Zirilli as Oz and Brit (that’s Ozzie and Britney, just to be clear). Photo by Paul Kolnik.
Much of the show has a glittery “Clockwork Orange” feel to it, as if designed by Kraftwerk, but then Galileo and Scaramouche are drawn to a colony of survivors dwelling in the ruins of the Hard Rock Cafe in Las Vegas where the surroundings are a potpourri of musical memorabilia from decades, maybe centuries earlier. It’s essentially a commune of “hippies” pulled out of “Hair” (called – wink, wink – the Bohemians), with characters named Oz (Erica Peck), Brit (Jared Zirilli), and Buddy (Ryan Knowles), who’ve naively taken their names from the long-dead pop musicians they can’t begin to fathom – in this case Ozzy Osbourne, Britney Spears, and Buddy Holly. The entire tribe is outfitted in a mishmash of once-faddish youth attire that now looks embarrassing – tie-dyed shirts, headbands, beads, low-cut jeans, and the kinds of haircuts that, if you gave one to your dog, it would run out onto a busy highway and get itself run over.
In short, these are dorky rebels, the Buddy Holly character in particular. I’m sorry to say that this stuff seems to belittle rock and roll, not celebrate it, and the word “juvenile” came to mind more times than I’d care to admit. The only thing that’s consistently impressive is the band, the actual musicians, positioned on a platform above and towards the back of the stage. They play all the songs live, and they play them loud.
The main characters end up outside the gates of Graceland to the anthem-like strains of “We Will Rock You” and “We Are The Champions.” It feels like the musical wants to force-feed us these two numbers, banking on their enduring popularity to have the audience on its feet and singing along.
It’s one of those situations where you may feel more than a little manipulated. On the other hand, like postcard views of the Grand Canyon, these songs have been overused and, however much we dug them when they were fresh, they’ve grown rather thin. And, like many of the songs, they somehow seem crammed into the storyline – unlike, say, in “Jersey Boys,” where the music was fitted into the narrative.
One song that can’t be forced into the narrative, however, is “Bohemian Rhapsody,” perhaps the best song Queen ever recorded and certainly one of the best rock songs of all time. But don’t worry, you won’t leave without hearing it. What sticks in the mind more than anything is the reminder that the late Freddie Mercury had a phenomenal voice, and that if one really wants to celebrate the essence of the group then maybe this time it’s best to forego the theater and return to the original source – the records themselves.
We Will Rock You is onstage through August 24 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles in the Music Center. Performances, Tuesday to Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Tickets, $25 to $120. Call (213) 972-4400 or go to CenterTheatreGroup.org. ER