When it rocks the rock, it's great, but when it talks the talk, look out. "We Will Rock You," the Frankenstein monster of a show assembled by Ben Elton from Queen songs, a sci-fi plot and jokes that were old when Benny Hill was young, has arrived in Toronto.
When it rocks the rock, it’s great, but when it talks the talk, look out. “We Will Rock You,” the Frankenstein monster of a show assembled by Ben Elton from Queen songs, a sci-fi plot and jokes that were old when Benny Hill was young, has arrived in Toronto.The musical, which grafts 31 of the glam-rock group’s greatest hits onto a campy dystopian vision of life on Earth 300 years from now, has been a huge hit in London since its premiere in 2002 despite being dismissed by the British critics. It has also played successfully in numerous markets around the world, but this production marks the North American premiere of the show’s full-length version after a cut-down edition briefly played Las Vegas in 2004. For “We Will Rock You,” the closest point of comparison is “Mamma Mia!,” but while the ABBA tribute featured a sweetly romantic story that worked nicely with the Swedish group’s silken harmonies, Elton’s book provides a cultural disconnect for the entire enterprise. Yes, one could find something hard and futuristic in Queen’s music, but what keeps sticking in the audience’s craw is the corniness and coarseness of the humor. When one character boasts of having “her daily bikini wax,” another praises her as “an eager beaver.” We’re in a world where live music has been banned by the Globalsoft corporation, symbolized by the swaggering Tina Turner-esque presence of the Killer Queen (Alana Bridgewater) and her slimy henchman Khashoggi (Evan Buliung). Their laser-wielding troops search out “Bohemians” who still remember fragments of the old days and send them off to “the seven seas of Rhye” where they live in booze-sodden, lobotomized splendor. Into this crazy universe comes a young man named Galileo (Yvan Pedneault) who keeps dreaming snatches of old pop tunes. This earns him the moniker “The Dreamer,” and his mission is to resurrect the glories of live rock ‘n’ roll. He and a cheeky young woman called Scaramouche (Erica Peck) banter, flirt and finally make love in act two. They briefly meet up with the Bohemians, who all live in a dive called “Heartbreak Hotel,” proudly carrying the inappropriate names of old-time music stars. The biggest, butchest one of the lot, for example, is called Britney Spears (Sterling Jarvis). But soon Galileo and Scaramouche are on their own, until an old hippie named Pop (Jack Langedijk) takes them to the ruins of Wembley Stadium, where they find an electric guitar that once belonged to Queen. This leads to a huge finale where “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” get the audience swaying in their seats, waving the neon glow-sticks provided on entering the theater. Throughout the show, the songs are sung well, with that kind of screeching energy brought into vogue by “American Idol.” And the eight-piece band led by Rick Fox keeps the musical energy high. But most of the show has been cast with relatively inexperienced performers who may know how to belt out a number but can’t really act a scene. Pedneault and Peck are cute but can’t keep their scenes from seeming repetitious. And Bridgewater has no idea how to convey the outsized energy of the Killer Queen. Only Buliung as the obsequious Khashoggi seems to grasp the style that would make things work, and Langedijk nails the old hippie Pop with flair. Elton’s staging is strictly stand-and-deliver, and Arlene Phillips’ choreography is more gymnastic than artistic. In the end, the uneven marriage between song and story makes the show an unsatisfying experience. Diehard Queen fans will love it for the music, yet it’s doubtful the crossover crowd that kept “Mamma Mia!” running here for five years will be similarly entranced.