We Will Rock You
Fear the future indeed if more of this awaits
|Broadway in Chicago presents|
|We Will Rock You|
Review by Clint May
Call this one a generational two-fer. For Baby Boomers who came of age with rock and roll, this has what they love: a dismissal of Millennial values as vapid and a continued mythologization of ROCK! For their progeny, the Gen Xers and Millennials, there’s a helpful dose of sardonic tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement that the myth of rock and roll is just that—a myth. After all the biopics and VH1 Behind the Musics, we know how the sausage was made. We know the bands at Woodstock—including The Who—wouldn’t go on stage without the cash. Still, the myth persists. We Will Rock You both loves and acknowledges this mythology as being a double-edged sword, but still remains a cash-hungry product. A crowd-pleaser, perhaps, but still one that exemplifies the ideals that Canadian journalist and social critic Chris Turner spoke of when he said of our 21st century consumerism, “We know how our products are packaged, how our media content is produced, and we will only buy those products that let us know that they know that we know.” Co-creators Queen and Ben Elton know we know that they know. That’s not as forgivable as it sounds.
Set 300 years into the kind of ‘just read my first Orwell’ dystopian future (the same setting that I’ve been fond of hating on at the Flat Irons Arts Building), the denizens of We Will Rock You inhabit a blasted cultural landscape that is the natural outgrowth of the post-Industrial West’s current obsessions—divesting individuality, digital interaction, consuming and conforming (think 2008’s Wall-E). It’s the device all great sci-fi-turned-social-criticism has done since H. G. Wells: take present conditions and stretch them out to their natural absurdity to demonstrate just how ridiculous it is. Earth has become the ‘iplanet,’ names are now URLs, friendships don’t take place in reality anymore, and everything is overseen by the RuPaulesque “Killer Queen” (Jacqueline Arnold, aka Big Brother in drag), the CEO of the world-encompassing GlobalSoft. All music is created by machine by the Ga Ga entertainment empire (see: versificator). Most of this has the surface value of someone who is only vaguely aware of what Facebook and iTunes are and only that they are “bad” in some nameless sense and therefore able to be appropriated for what passes as satire.
Into this hellscape of totalitarian control comes the Dreamer, Galileo Figaro (Brian Justin Crum), a prophesied young man with an FM radio brain that picks up signals from rock and roll’s past to be scribbled into endless journals. Turns out that in the world of the Ga Ga Kids, there are the bohemian rebels who seek an axe that will be pulled from its resting place King Arthur-style and release the power of rock and roll back into the world. As the bewildered Galileo evades the conniving Killer Queen lackey Khashoggi (P. J. Griffith), he encounters his soul mate and rock “chick,” whom he dubs Scaramouche (Ruby Lewis). Together they trek to where rock and rollers went to die—Las Vegas. Holed up in the ruins of a sacred rock and roll chapel, a Hard Rock Cafe, the bohemians tell Galileo of his destiny as the chosen one.
Everything pretty much writes itself and follows the tried and true formula. Where it strains at the edges is when it shoehorns in Queen’s classics (“We Will Rock You,” “Under Pressure,” “Fat Bottomed Girls,”—24 in total) in the same style as Mama Mia (which debuted three years before Rock), milking a pre-made songbook for all it’s worth. Make no mistake, it’s exactly the corporate product its own protagonists rail against. In some ways, they acknowledge the ridiculousness of it all. Setting their bohemians in that pinnacle symbol of rock-as-product, the Hard Rock Cafe, and a recurring gag where they name themselves from fragments of the great rock and rollers (the “greatest” is Britney Spears, whose future namesake is played by Jared Zirill).
Any grander attempt to make a point about our generation’s desperate search for meaning and identity and our willingness to both be and to rebel against iconoclasts to preserve a fiction is lost in a sea of endless mile-a-minute pop culture referencing. Elton has updated the British script to appeal to American audiences and to incorporate current technologies that didn’t exist in 2002, but it’s all on the surface. Every chance to make a larger statement Book of Mormon-style about the nature of what motivates us to embrace consumerism and lies is rendered invisible by the groaners that are, in their own funny way, kind of charming in that Elton would attempt to make them at all. Most of his book is fragments of song lyrics that wink endlessly at the audience in their new context. Nothing is said about the nature of fame being the serpent that eats its own tail, though in a meta-sense, this is like watching culture do that very thing. I’m just not sure that was the intent.
One of the inventions that is blamed for the downfall of rock in their future is American Idol (thankfully already waning), which they say produced so many stars at such a rate that their fame could only last as long as their album. Still, no one can doubt that the voices themselves that are discovered by Idol aren’t bad, they’re just—by and large—soulless. Though Crum and Lewis have beautiful voices, they simple don’t have the inherent soul of rock (again, I couch that in the dubious idea that this is a thing that existed). They feel more like they’re trapped in an episode of “Glee”. Pleasant as must needs be, but hollow. Villains being what they are, Arnold steals the show with all the best scenery chewing to be had. Everyone is mugging at a ferocious volume that is only matched by the massive live band playing over all. It took a while for them to get the first night’s crowd up and arm waving, and you have to stick around after the bows for their encore, the long awaited “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
Slick as an iPhone, We Will Rock You represents the apex of the very gaudy, cynical trends it portends. If you want to be a part of the rebellion, rebel with your wallets. Maybe we can not only uncreate the future of unoriginality that they show us, but this present as well.
We Will Rock You continues through October 27th at Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph (map), with performances Thursday and Friday at 7:30pm, Saturday 2pm and 8pm, Sunday 2pm. Tickets are $20-$85, and are available by phone (800-775-2000) or online through Ticketmaster.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at WeWillRockYou.com. (Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Paul Kolnik
Brian Justin Crum (Galileo), Ruby Lewis (Scaramouche), Jacqueline Arnold (Killer Queen), P.J. Griffith (Khashoggi), Ryan Knowles (Buddy), Erica Peck (Oz), Jared Zirill (Britney), Danny Balkwill, Samantha Berman, Bentley Black, Jessica Crouch, Saccha Dennis, Sam Digiuseppe, Suzanna Dupree, Daniel Greenberg, Stephen Hernandez, Nathan Keen, William Joseph Lewis, Brooke Morrison, Jennifer Mote, Katie Murphy, Jennifer Noble, Fred Odgaard, Patrick Ortiz, Jason Sermonia, Stephanie Sy, Kasey Walker (ensemble)
Rick Hip-Flores, Brandon Ethridge, Emily Marshall, Tristan Avakian, Bob Wegner, Mike Cohen, David Steven, Danny Young
behind the scenes
Ben Elton (director, book writer), Brian May, Roger Taylor (music supervisors), Jim Beach (Queen management), Arllene Phillips (musical staging, choreography), Mark Fisher (original production design, video director), Willie Williams (lighting design, video director), Tim Goodchild (costume design), Bobby Aitken (sound design), Mike Dixon (musical supervisor), Steve Sidwell (orchestrator), Tony Edge (associate director), Paul Kolnik (photos)