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4/3/14

THEATER REVIEW: We Will Rock You @ the Fisher Theatre

Review by Peter Schorn

A musical fueled by the power of Queen; what could go wrong? It turns out plenty, as We Will Rock You, kicking off a two-week run at the Fisher Theatre proves, laid low by a combination of a poor book, lackluster lead, and nagging technical difficulties.

Intended to be a satire about mega-corporate media oppression, WWRY is set in the distant future on the iPlanet (we call it Earth) where everyone listens to the same pre-programmed pop pablum and lives their lives on the Internet. (OK, this sounds like now.) Globalsoft Corporation, run by the Killer Queen (Jacqueline B. Arnold), controls everything but there is a small but growing faction of rebels called Bohemians is out there threatening the order. A prophecy - there's always a prophecy - that a Dreamer will come and find the "axe" to bring back rock & roll and that kid is Galileo Figaro (Brian Justin Crum) who is plagued by dreams of song lyrics and places.

After meeting an outcast Goth girl, Scaramouche (Ruby Lewis) - are you catching onto the names yet? - they flee into the wasteland where they encounter Brit (Jared Zirilli) and Oz (Erica Peck), who looks like cast members from a Road Warrior musical and/or Twisted Sister tribute band. Gal and Scar join with them, ending up at the Las Vegas Hard Rock Cafe which serves as sanctuary for the Bohemians. There Galileo learns of the prophecy and his probable role in it. Of course, Killer Queen's head flunkie, Khashoggi (P.J. Griffith) has other plans for the Bohemians. Will Galileo find the magic axe to save the world from mindless corporate consumerism? Duh. (Does the merch booth selling pricey souvenirs from the show seem ironic to anyone?)

A big selling point for this production of We Will Rock You is that writer Ben Elton has done a huge update to the book (i.e. the non-singing parts of a musical) in order to keep the references current. So Planet Mall has become iPlanet and there's a Miley Cyrus twerking gag along with hash tags and other lingo currently having its 15 minutes. But for the most part a lot of the dialog is corny use of pop song lyrics out of context. If "Whoops, I did it again," as dialog sounds hilarious, you're going to love WWRY, but for every clever gag, there are a bunch more that thud harder than your grandma rapping N.W.A. tunes.

Where WWRY stunningly falters is where you'd expect it to excel: the song selection. Queen has a deep catalog and 20 songs are on tap here, but the mix is off, heavily loaded with late-era tunes including a pair - "Headlong" and "No-One But You" - that I had to ask a friend who paid attention to the band after The Works (where I stepped off) about, learning they were hits in Europe. Sure, the obvious tunes like "Crazy Little Thing Called Love," "Under Pressure" and "Another One Bites the Dust" are represented as are some tasty album tracks like "Now I'm Here" and the odd hardcore-only track like "Seven Seas of Rhye, " but how does "Keep Yourself Alive" or "Play The Game" or "Don't Stop Me Now" fail to make the cut. (Actually, according to Wikipedia, those last two songs WERE in the show originally, along with "One Vision" and others, but the show is tailored to what they think the target market would better appreciate. If so, they done screwed up here.) Jukebox musicals should be non-brainers, but it appears the skills that made Mamma Mia and Rock of Ages click eluded Elton and company. It's not that some of the songs having their lyrics changed - "Radio Ga Ga" most radically (see video below) - but just poor choices that ill-serve the needs of musical theater to advance plot and character.

So we've got a trite book and poor song choices; what else is wrong with WWRY? Primarily the giant hole in the center of the proceedings: Galileo and Crum's bloodless performance. Galileo is an inert character, troubled by dreams he doesn't understand, but other than feeling he should be doing something to break free, he doesn't really do much until he meets Scaramouche and even then with everyone else dragging him along, he never steps up to lead. Everyone only looks to him because the script says, "Look at Galileo." Crum does the tissue thin character little good with his bland looks and demeanor that answered the unasked question as to what a TGIFridays dinner theater performer would be like. He's an adequate singer, but adequate isn't enough to sing the songs that originally came out of Freddie Mercury's epic mouth. Imagine a Glee cast member without their raw animal sexuality. Yeah, Crum is pretty much that.

Also disappointing was Arnold's Killer Queen. She gets a splashy introduction in elaborate spiked leather and sporting a Patti LaBelle-inspired Mohawk, promising great things, but while a good singer, she never catches soul fire and it felt like watching a dress rehearsal, not a leave-it-all-on-the-floor performance. Too bad.

Moving away from those two, however, the quality ramps up considerably beginning with Lewis' Scaramouche who is sassy, sarcastic, sexy and sings with power. Also strong is Peck, who also has some showcase moments, and Griffith who brings smarmy brio to his role as Killer Queen's flunkie. The show-stealing winner is Ryan Knowles as Buddy, who wrings genuine major laughs from his part with schtick doing butchered pronunciations, like calling a VHS tape a "vai-dee-oh tah-pee," and generally oozing all personality that Crum didn't. He got the loudest ovation at the end.

The set design and lighting is slick, utilizing an LED video wall that goes up and down to blast candy-colored scenery in the audience's collective face.  (It's bigger and flashier than the screen in the clip below.) The costume designs are creative and the 8-piece band located high above the stage in the back capably conveys Queen's lush arrangements; sharp-eyed guitar nerds will spot the Guild Brian May models being used to mimic his signature tone.

However, there were serious problems with the sound mix; the band roared and rocked, but the moment the singers began, their voices sounded thin, tinny and compressed, like they were coming from a transistor radio while the music came from a booming stereo. I've been at shows where there have been glitches with individual microphones - one of the Santas in Elf at the Opera House last year had his cut out - but never so many for so long. When Scaramouche began singing "Somebody To Love," her mic was much louder and warmer and I thought perhaps the mix was being fixed to account for a theater full of people, but when Galileo returned after a long stretch sounding the same, those hopes were dashed. As the show dragged on, the audience's applause lessened, partially due to the poor material, but also because the audio headaches prevented enjoying the music, fatal for a musical.

We Will Rock You has been a massive hit around the world, seen by millions of people over the past deacade-plus, but it's hard to understand why based on what was onstage at the Fisher. Perhaps a better mix and more charismatic lead makes the difference. If you're a casual Queen fan - and they fix the sound - you might have some fun with We Will Rock You, but if you're a deeper fan, you'll probably be let down as I was by the missed opportunity.

Queen was the first band I hunted down all their albums for my collection. (I had to return two copies of A Day At The Races to Sam's Jams because of noisy vinyl. I'm old.) The only time I've ever watched an episode of American Idol was when they did a Queen theme night because I wanted to see how badly the pop star wannabes would do. (Taylor Hicks tried to kick over his mic stand in a faux act of rock rebellion and missed. He still went on to win that season and become another reason why everyone hates white people.) I like jukebox musicals like the brilliant Mamma Mia (the gold standard for the format) and entertaining Rock of Ages (the movie really didn't do it justice; here's my review of the stage version) so if there was ever a easy mark for a Queen musical, it would be me. Unfortunately, We Will Rock You didn't.

We Will Rock You runs from April 1-13 at the Fisher Theater, located at 3011 W. Grand Blvd. Tuesday through Saturday performances at 8 pm; Sunday evening performances at 7:30 pm; Saturday and Sunday matinees, 2 pm. Surf on over to www.BroadwayInDetroit.com for more information.