‘We Will Rock You’ wraps Queen in sweet vibe for supercharged romp back to bohemian roots
Review: “We Will Rock You,” the musical by Queen and Ben Elton in U.S. tour, presented by Broadway in Chicago at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, through Oct. 27 only. ★★★
By Nancy Malitz
The first rule regarding “We Will Rock You,” winding up a whistle-stop week at Chicago’s Cadillac Palace at the beginning of an eight-month U.S. tour: If you’re not a Queen fan, you need to bone up. Not that this is difficult.
A YouTube crash course on the British rock band will have you resonating from top to toe with the brilliant achievement that was Freddie Mercury. Those video clips are the real thing — splendid artistic conceptions by Mercury, Queen’s lead vocalist, lyricist and most powerful stage persona, who died in 1991. Meanwhile, the original version of this musical has been playing for more than 11 years in London, with the original cast album starring Tony Vindent (at right) and other digital trails abundant.
For lovers of Queen’s music and the break-free spirit that was Mercury, the live band that graces the stage — really a platform high above the stage — will seem literally heaven sent, so powerfully does it channel these memories. The singers who keep Freddie Mercury’s spirit alive are persuasive vocalists in their own right — including a tiny detonator called Ruby Lewis (as the gothic Scaramouche) whose pert comic timing and explosive voice trigger non-stop fireworks.
The coyly absurd story line is a loose ramble adding up to the general gist that teenagers are growing up on a futuristic iPlanet brainwashed, because their rock music has been taken away from them. This, they sing about all the time. (Note the conflict inherent in the last two sentences, but do not obsess about this.)
The rebel bohemian kids — at least the ones lucky enough to have neurons that still flash in their craniums — sing “I Want to Break Free,” “I Want it All” and “We Will Rock You.” And the bad guys — arch villain totalitarian types including, duh, a Killer Queen — sing “Killer Queen,” “Fat Bottomed Girls” and “Another One Bits the Dust.” The brainwashed youngsters sing “Radio Ga Ga,” and there is plenty of other Queen material to go around.
A youthful prophet in the rebels’ midst is Mercury’s alter-ego Galileo (Brian Justin Crum) and we meet him early as he complains of mysterious messages that come to him in his sleep, usually lines from rock songs of the past, none of which he recognizes.
Crum has a clean-cut look and a voice with a thrilling top that makes him a good fit for the role as envisioned by Ben Elton, the creator of the show’s story line. Galileo is to Freddie more or less what Peter Parker is to Spider-Man — a sweet, somewhat clueless and tentative hero in the forming stage.
Thus early on, the various aspects of Mercury’s persona and iconoclasm are splintered and shared by the rest of the cast. Khashoggi (deliciously nasty P.J. Griffith) self-consciously flaunts himself as Killer Queen’s Number 1 henchman. The Killer Queen (Jacqueline B. Arnold) gets a droll soulful twist with her eponymous song. Oz and Brit (Erica Peck and Jared Jaredi Zirilli) are a spunky, over the top B-couple in “I Want It All.” And Buddy (the outrageous Ryan Knowles) provides the lanky appearance, the voice with its surprising bass extension, and casual wit.
Elton ties Queen’s hit songs together, tongue in cheek, to entertain you in such a way that performers get as quickly as possible from one great number to the next. There are aging boomer jokes about a time long-gone, so far back nobody remembers. The show’s Rosetta Stone, the key to all knowledge that will help the miserable teens break free, is a clunky black object with two revolving wheels that Buddy, in one of his great moments, calls a VY-DAYO TAHPUH. (Pause here until the light bulb comes on.)
Meanwhile, Galileo and Scaramouche banter like future lovers in any comic-book based action flick, and they sing “You’re My Best Friend” — stunning musically, but almost too sweet for the purpose. They come into their own in “Hammer to Fall,” where they channel the power of an entire youth-driven movement, and their story reaches its summit atop the ruins of what was once Graceland, where “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” erupt into huge production numbers backed by the entire company.
This show is not, in the traditional Broadway sense, plot-driven. Once the audience realizes that it’s really OK to stand up, sing along and take over the aisles, the real point of it all is taken. Which brings one to a final bit of advice regarding audience exit strategy. Don’t plan one. Stay. Not all is foretold by the program in your hands.
- Queen guitarist Brian May showed up at the U.S. tour launch last week: Check out the pix at GuitarWorld.com
- Performance location, dates and times: Go to TheatreInChicago.com
- Broadway in Chicago hosts other touring shows: Check out the season at BroadwayinChicago.com
- “We Will Rock You” tests reach of Queen’s magic: Read the essay at ChicagoOntheAisle.com