TUTS ‘We Will Rock You’

23 Jan

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By JOHN DeMERS

The current Theatre Under The Stars production of We Will Rock You, built around the music of Queen, is light years from being the worst “jukebox musical” ever created. But mostly for the flimsiness of its book, it’s hardly the best one either. As the show goes on, as shows invariably must, and moves toward those wildly theatrical Queen anthems “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions,” it’s easy to forget this may not be the most engaging theater you’ve ever seen.

With the care and feeding of British writer Ben Elton (who even dared take on that sequel to Phantom of the Opera with Andrew Lloyd Webber, Love Never Dies), We Will Rock You does have some kind of story. It’s the future, and everything in life is boringly neutral thanks to the cleverly named company Globalsoft. Teenagers text and tweet blandly all day and all night, with no access to the rumored rock and roll that (as we know) was always pure, noncommercial, unique and liberating, ever since the times of a mythical King who now sleeps behind the gates of a palace that, from its first mention, sounds like Graceland.

There is, I suppose, nothing wrong with this fanciful tale of an even more fanciful history of rock, and it does let the cast get off dozens of clever one-liners about pop celebs from Buddy Holly to Miley Cyrus. It is less successful in providing a track on which to run the 24 Queen songs chosen for the show, a few obscure but most of the sort you’d have to live on Mars to not know. There are several affectionate references to late Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, which bring predictable cheers from a crowd gathered for this particular memorial service.

The look and feel of We Will Rock You, designed for the London stage by Mark Fisher with lighting by Willie Williams and excellent hair and makeup by John “Jack” Curtin, is kind of Mad Max meets West Side Story meets The Rocky Horror Show, with maybe a side order of Starmites. Everything is colorful and lots of fun – so much that you might expect Elton John to join Ben Elton on the show’s creative team, except that would be very different music. As it is, Queen gets a loving tribute-band rendering from a set of young rock musicians inhabiting a platform, often in the darkness, high above the stage. Like Queen’s original music, We Will Rock You’s first achievement is being very loud. Why would you want to hear these songs any other way?

If there are failings inherent in the score – almost every song is a hard-rock anthem, perfect for the belting graduates of American Idol, ironically blamed in this show for killing “true rock” – there are no failings in the TUTS cast. Brian Justin Crum and Ruby Lewis dazzle as the romantic leads, two teens who lead a long-promised rebellion against Globalsoft – she especially with her soul-crunching, Janis Joplinesque rendition of “Somebody to Love.” Then again, Crum gets to “be” Freddie Mercury over and over, building toward the show’s big finale. He does so with careful phrasing, perfect pitch and intense physicality – just like Freddie himself used to.

Other top performances include Jacqueline B. Arnold as the Killer Queen of Globalsoft (borrowing a bit from Tina Turner in The Who’s Tommy) and P.J. Griffith as her drippingly evil henchman, who shares the name “Khashoggi” with the shadowy, real-life Saudi arms dealer. It’s the kind of role Roddy McDowell would have jumped all over, if he could sing and move like he’d just escaped from the Righteous Brothers.

The TUTS production of We Will Rock You, well worth an evening if you remember when, continues at the Hobby Center until Feb. 2.

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