We Will Rock You is dripping with so much old-fart attitude you can almost smell it.
A jukebox musical built to cash in on the songs of Queen, We Will Rock You is relentlessly nostalgic and condescending. The thesis of Ben Elton’s book can be boiled down to: “The music kids listen to these days is shit. What they really need is a band like Queen to make them cooler, which means more like their grandparents.” Given all of that, it’s hardly surprising that We Will Rock You is also sexist, although it pretends not to be.
Before I go any further, let me also say that there are some excellent performances and other production successes in director Saccha Dennis’s mounting for Theatre Under the Stars. But let’s start with the story, which is set 300 years in the future, and build back up from there.
Elton’s narrative focuses on a young guy named Galileo who receives aural transmissions from the past, snatches of rock lyrics and melodies from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, that he can’t make sense of. In a culture dominated by a corporation called Globalsoft, musical instruments have been banned. Computers produce soulless, synthetic pop tunes that keep the population passive, mindlessly consuming, and conformist. Where can Galileo fit in?
Fortunately for him, he meets a young female nonconformist, whom he names Scaramouche — it just comes to him — and, together, they connect with the Bohemians, a rebel group opposed to Globalsoft. The Bohemians believe in a legend that foretells the appearance of a saviour (you guessed it: Galileo) and the discovery of a sacred ax (yes, a guitar).
For for a good chunk of Act 1, I didn’t really care that the plot is sophomoric because the songs are so good — “I Want to Break Free”, “Somebody To Love”, “Under Pressure” — and the singing from this almost entirely non-Equity cast is impressive. But I became increasingly aware that the set-ups to the songs are mostly just excuses to introduce hits that do next to nothing to advance the predictable plot. That’s when I knew I was in for a long night.
But I did say there were successes. Steffanie Davis, who’s playing Killer Queen, the villainous leader of Globalsoft, can belt with the best of them — through a dizzying vocal range — and she has a wickedly knowing comic sensibility that she doles out in delicious little offhand gestures. Her delivery of “Another One Bites the Dust”, which comes in the second act, is the performance highlight of the evening.
Tim Howe, who’s playing Killer Queen’s smarmy henchman, Kashoggi, displays a similar confidence and comedic command.
These two are the only Equity pros in the cast, but you’d be hard-pressed to distinguish them from other actors, who are also skilled.
As a Bohemian couple named Brit and Oz, Tanner Zerr and Jennifer Suratos rock their vocal pyrotechnics. With his undulating torso and pleated black rubber skirt — more about designer Brian Ball’s costumes in a minute — Zerr is Mr. Sexypunk.
Vocally and emotionally, Danny Malena and Jessica Spenst pour themselves into the roles of Galileo and Scaramouche and do a fine job of carrying the spine of the show.
But let’s talk about the writing the surrounds Scaramouche. The men, including Galileo, repeatedly refer to her as “chick”. When she objects, they tell her that, in the golden days of rock and roll, calling a woman a chick was a sign of respect. Maybe that’s parody. But, in another typical exchange, a character called Buddy imagines being a roadie and having the groupies flash their “hooters”. Scaramouche objects — “Not cool, dude!” — but Elton keeps repeating this same dynamic, exploiting Scaramouche’s feminism as a kind of cute comic feistiness. And Elton has the cooler-than-cool Bohemians decide that Scaramouche needs a makeover. To be clear: Scaramouche doesn’t decide to change her look; that decision is made for her. In this production, she leaves the stage as a goth and returns as a punk in a bustier. Is the point to make her sexier? WTF? I thought this show was about nonconformity. By the way, Galileo informs Scaramouche that the whole point of rock music is to sing it for your baby: that’s why he needs a girlfriend. Where’s the ghost of Freddy Mercury when you need him?
Brian Ball’s costumes are great. (That stupid makeover isn’t his fault.) He gives Killer Queen a two-foot-high red wig, the back-up singers in “Fat Bottomed Girls” get ribbons of lights that create bodacious hips (which look very cool in the dark in the park), and, in another sequence, Ball dresses Killer Queen’s minions in tunics adorned with computer coding in zeroes and ones.
Set and lighting designer Robert Sondergaard is also having a good time with this show. Using banks of equipment, he generates credible concert lighting. And director Dennis keeps the ramps and stairs of his modular steel-tubing set moving, especially in her trippy staging of “A Kind of Magic” in Act 1.
But what’s it all about, Alfie? Um … marketing. Although it ludicrously positions rock and roll as being above corporate culture, We Will Rock You strikes me as a barefaced money grab — going straight for the nostalgia bucks without pausing to think.
WE WILL ROCK YOU Music and lyrics by Queen. Book by Ben Elton. Directed by Saccha Dennis. A Theatre Under the Stars production. On Friday, July 8. Running in rep at Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park until August 27. Tickets
NEVER MISS A REVIEW: Sign up for FRESH SHEET, my weekly e-letter about the arts.
And, if you want to help to keep independent arts criticism alive in Vancouver, check out my Patreon page.