We Will Rock You

Check your brains at the door and you may have a good time at "We Will Rock You," the dizzyingly silly Queen anthology musical that makes "Mamma Mia!" look like the acme of sophistication. On the other hand, the Abba songfest never had the production values that Christopher Renshaw's staging does here.

Check your brains at the door and you may have a good time at “We Will Rock You,” the dizzyingly silly Queen anthology musical that makes “Mamma Mia!” look like the acme of sophistication. On the other hand, the Abba songfest never had the production values that Christopher Renshaw’s staging does here, bringing to the musical theater a level of rock-arena sophistication to surpass “The Who’s Tommy,” the reigning high-water mark to date in that regard. If you can ride out Ben Elton’s often self-consciously inane book, Queen’s music is the meaning, as put over by a pretty terrific company who (to paraphrase a song title) generate their own kind of magic.

Those not previously enamored of Queen will balk at the show’s wildly self-aggrandizing message — that in the 24th century on Planet Mall, the parallel universe where “We Will Rock You” is set, the memory of the British foursome represents “a rock freedom collective” pointing the way back to “real music” and “original thought.” In the intervening centuries, mankind has become a homogenized, synthetic mass living cybernetic lives and indulging in group aerobics that resemble nothing so much as an incipient Nazi rally in Arlene Phillips’ energetic, uh, choreography. (In the lexicon of Planet Mall, dancing has evidently been replaced by “gaga moves.” They said it, not I.)

Ruling the roost is the Killer Queen (the big-voiced Sharon D. Clarke) and her bleached-blond assistant, Khashoggi (Alexander Hanson), neither of whom takes lightly the insurgent rebels in their midst. The renegades are led by Galileo (Tony Vincent) — “virtually a virtual high school dropout,” he says by way of self-analysis — and punkette Scaramouche (Hannah Jay Fox), who meet, sing “Under Pressure” together and then declare their affection: “If I have your love, dying doesn’t matter much at all,” one tells the other, until the exigencies of shoehorning in another couple of Queen anthems necessitates their falling out.

Lots of shows boast books that are little more than pretexts for the numbers, but few connect the song-and-dance dots as baldly as “We Will Rock You,” which tends toward the self-satiric in a way “Mamma Mia!” didn’t dare. How, after all, could any script accommodate “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a song possessed of lyrics that seem to occupy their own planet? Not easily. And so the defining cover everyone awaits arrives untethered to the story in time for the final bows, preceded immediately by the roof-raising vocals of American performer Vincent, who leads the company on both “We Are the Champions” and the title song. (A welcome newcomer to the West End, Vincent played Judas in the recent Broadway revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”)

Still, there’s little point in getting hung up on writing that at its best has a sophomoric glee. (The random appropriation of 20th-century song lyrics — “Billie Jean is not my lover” and the like — isn’t bad, as those things go.) At its worst, Elton’s book plumbs the same naively earnest depths that he trawled in “The Beautiful Game,” the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that was about a real tragedy, the “troubles” in Northern Ireland, as opposed to the lunatic conceit concocted here. Notwithstanding a sustained requiem for those musical talents who died before their time, Freddie Mercury of course among them, I’m not sure that “We Will Rock You” ought to make so much of our own supposedly “processed” musical age when this show could be read as an awfully gerrymandered canter through a back catalog at least as bombastic as it is invigorating.

Luckily, the production is sufficiently disarming that charges of cynicism tend to yield to the infectious good spirits of a company who truly look as if they are having a blast. While Vincent and the ever-exuberant Clarke are the vocal standouts, the latter shimmying to “Fat Bottom Girls” before mounting an imperious attack on “Another One Bites the Dust,” veteran comedian Planer looks pleasantly dazed by his Willie Nelson-esque persona.

Visually, too, the production — backed, in part, by Robert De Niro’s New York-based Tribeca — ups the stakes for extravaganzas of this sort, coordinating video footage, plasma screens and an enormous lighting grid to give the impression that Elton’s prolonged encomium is, at heart, a celebratory gig. (Willie Williams, the prodigious lighting designer, is in fact on loan from the music industry.) Might it not have been better, all things considered, merely to hear the songs in concert? Well, that would have denied auds the sexual innuendo (yes, there are “eager beaver” jokes) of the least demanding sort. The point is, “We Will Rock You” doesn’t want anything more than to roll over that same audience that gets dewy-eyed at the mere mention of Wembley Stadium. And the Dominion is a lot more central.

We Will Rock You

Dominion Theater, London; 2,016 Seats; £42.50 ($62) Top

  • Production: A Phil McIntyre, Queen Theatrical Prods. and Tribeca Theatrical Prods. presentation of a musical in two acts with music and lyrics by Freddie Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon, story and script by Ben Elton. Directed by Christopher Renshaw.
  • Crew: Choreography, Arlene Phillips. Sets, Mark Fisher; costumes, Tim Goodchild; lighting, Willie Williams; video directors, Fisher, Williams; sound, Bobby Aitken; fight director, Gordon Alexander; orchestrations, Steve Sidwell; music supervisors, May, Taylor, Mike Dixon; vocal harmony arrangements, May, Dixon. Opened, reviewed May 14, 2002. Running time: 2 HOURS, 40 MIN.
  • Cast: Pop - Nigel Planer Khashoggi - Alexander Hanson Scaramouche - Hannah Jane Fox Galileo - Tony Vincent Britney - Nigel Clauzel Meat - Kerry Ellis <b>With:</b> Bekki Carpenter, Mark Marson, Robert Ricks, Tanya Robb, Phong Truong, Anna Woodside, Chris Lennon, Giles New, Zak Nemorin, Laetitia Ray, Richard Roe, Golda Rosheuvel, Nicola Stuart, Leon Webster, Sam Archer, Giorgia Barberi, Luke Baxter, Mazz Murray, Nick Crossley, Alistair David, Andrew Derbyshire, Lucie Fentum, Amy Field, Taira Foo, Amanda Harrison, Dalhi Haynes, Cameron Jack, Jenna Lee-James. <B>Musical numbers:</B> "Innuendo," "Radio Gaga," "I Want to Break Free," "Somebody to Love," "Killer Queen," "Play the Game/Death on Two Legs," "Under Pressure," "A Kind of Magic," "I Want It All," "Headlong," "No One but You," "Crazy Little Thing Called Love," "One Vision," "Who Wants to Live Forever," "Flash/Seven Seas of Rye," "Fat Bottom Girls/Don't Stop Me Now/Another One Bites the Dust," "Hammer Fall," "These Are the Days of Our Lives," "We Will Rock You," "We Are the Champions," "Bohemian Rhapsody."
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