There’s a fine line between genius and madness. I’m not sure on which side of the line Freddie Mercury stood, but I have no doubt that his typically flamboyant persona would have been confounded to silence by the senselessly slaughtered carcass of a cash-cow that is We Will Rock You the musical. The show was panned by critics when it premiered in 2002, but audiences lapped it up and it became the fifteenth longest-running musical in the West End. The show has been updated in recent years (Planet Mall is now iPlanet), but not enough to address its incomprehensibility or inherent misogyny. It may be set in the year 3,000, but 1980s’ values are alive and well.
Galileo Figaro is a prophet. No reason. He just is. Deal with it. He doesn’t understand the words that pop out of his mouth like a Tourette’s episode, but we do – WINK WINK. He and Scaramouche, who literally does not have a name until he gives her one, are both anomalies in a generation of conformity. They’re arrested by Khashoggi, the police commander of the Orwellian state, and then just kind of escape. They meet some bohemians and search for an axe (that’s guitar for all you idiots out there), while being pursued by Killer Queen who spends a lot of time not moving. Do they find the axe? Do they fall in love? Does Khashoggi ever take off his sunglasses? Couldn’t care less. I give up on the narrative and deducing any dramaturgical logic after the first scene. It’s all about the music now.
And that’s the issue. The most common problem with jukebox musicals is that they work backwards. They start with songs spread across multiple albums that have no correlation other than the artists that produced them, and then attempt, often perfunctorily, to form some sort of cohesive narrative. Lyrics are forced into dialogue against their will, like male genitals into leather pants, and songs occur because the character has to sing not out of an internal, emotional necessity, but because the plot makes them. As a writer, I love wordplay, but after over two hours of dialogue that plays out like an extended Song Titles game from Whose Line Is It Anyway?, I began to see how others have viewed my puns as a neurological disorder. And as I wonder if the entire audience is suffering from Witzelsucht, I also wonder why if Galileo is the prophet, everyone else can speak Queen lyrics, and why they are unable to pronounce ancient words that were part of their current lexicon. Fortunately, the music of Queen, under the musical direction of Mark Bradley and Edwin Randall, is in good hands, with vocal performances offering a slight personal signature while staying true to the originals.
WWRY relies predominantly on vocal strength, which William Deane, Bridie Dixon, Caleb Muller and Rebecca Wright each have to glorious degrees. Telling the story of the song, however, is where things begin to falter. While Dixon fights back with warrant at everything in the script working against her in portraying a three-dimensional character, Deane reverts to the most common and unattractive action of whining. This lack of character depth in Emma Carr’s direction is seen most evidently in David Mackie’s rendition of These Are The Days of Our Lives, which is clouded with superfluous stage direction and gesturing, and Muller and Wright’s reduction to farcical caricatures, which they admirably wholly embrace. Meanwhile, ticket-selling Annie Crummer chews the scenery as if she hasn’t eaten since her original performance in 2003.
WWRY is not an easy show. It’s a ridiculous one. And while Theatre Co. have presented it with all the necessary bells and whistles to detract from the nonsensical narrative, there is one central component which the production ultimately lacks. While executed with professional flair, the soul of rock is as cold as Freddie’s effigy. The cast have an excellent band supporting them, and Rebekkah Schoonbeek-Berridge’s choreography gives the show a momentum it otherwise lacks. But other than Dixon and Wright (and Kristin Paulse, who looks like the only cast member who has ever been in a mosh pit), there is none of the hedonistic freedom that rock offers to lift the show beyond its technical aspects. But when you have to prompt the audience with surtitles for the most well-known song as an encore, you’re already working against this freedom. You could pay $60 to see the show, but you could also pay less to smoke a joint and sing along to your favourite Queen album at home.