“We Will Rock You” doesn’t rock.
The jukebox musical built around the songs of Queen, which opened Tuesday night at Starlight Theater, does anything but .
It’s too bad that “showtune” isn’t also a verb, because that’s exactly what this production does to the British band’s sweeping classics. Or maybe the proper verb is “Glee-ify.” That is, to soften and homogenize rock songs until they become showtunes worthy of a high school choir.
Queen’s music, with its operatic scope, could have made for fine live theater. “We Will Rock You” doesn’t, mostly because of a painfully silly, hackneyed book by Ben Elton.
The story takes place 300 years from now in a dystopian future that’s part-Brave New World, part-1984. Ruled by the omnipotent Globalsoft Corp., Earth has been renamed iPlanet. Rock is long dead. Musical instruments are banned. Young people must listen to soulless, conformist songs made by computers. Everyone spends their lives staring at computer screens, lost in virtual worlds.
But a messianic figure with visions of freeing the planet appears. Named Galileo, he joins the Bohemians, a group of rebels struggling to resurrect the spirit of rock. The search for an Excalibur-like magical axe follows, interwoven with a perfunctory love story.
“We Will Rock You” is a comedy, so some of the lowbrow silliness can be excused. But the show is also ostensibly satire, meant to lampoon our own times, and fails miserably at doing so.
That’s a shame. Thematically, this is fertile ground. Soulless, preprogrammed, auto-tuned techno-crap is, in fact, replacing live music. Virtual life online is becoming a substitute for real experiences.
Yet, save for a few pointed references to Facebook, the script never takes itself seriously enough to address its own themes. Elton’s humor is mostly based on mere recognition, with characters speaking in snippets of pop lyrics, and audiences laughing when they recognize the references.
Despite critical pans, “WWRY” has been a huge financial success, having run more than 10 years at London’s Dominion Theatre. The mostly middle-aged crowd in Kansas City certainly liked it, filling two-thirds of Starlight and offering a standing ovation at evening’s end.
Admittedly, the production values were worthy. The eight-piece band churned though Queen’s catalog of hits with an admirable, if karaoke-like precision. The stage lighting featured plenty of flashing strobes and the occasional laser. The sets were excellent, with an especially effective use of images projected on screens upstage, behind the live performers.
All that dazzle, though, couldn’t hide the shortcomings of an almost uniformly mediocre cast.
Brian Justin Crum’s performance as Galileo was lackluster. Crum never projected any mystique — that sense of an inevitably grand destiny and untapped power so necessary for playing an undiscovered messiah. Worse, Crum simply didn’t sing well.
In fairness, he had a gargantuan row to hoe. Freddie Mercury may be the most powerful voice in rock history. Even allowing for the impossibility of filling Freddie’s shoes, though, Crum was unimpressive. Throughout the night, he hit flat notes, had a thin tone or let phrases drift off into breathiness. Only a few times, during climactic numbers, did Crum rise above mere competence. It was a timorous performance. He seemed more interested in avoiding mistakes than communicating emotion.
P.J. Griffith’s performance as the nefarious Khashoggi also fell short. A campy, comedic villain demands over-the-top evil. But Griffith underplayed it, throwing away his most menacing lines with a wink and smirk.
Jacqueline B. Arnold as Killer Queen had nice comic timing during her spoken parts, but often sang lazily — pushing notes through her nose like a poor version of Tina Turner. The dance numbers were sloppy, as well — during a chorus line invoking the Rockettes the high kicks were blatantly out of sync.
Ryan Knowles as Buddy was a scene-stealer, virtually the only performer who delivered lines with authority and let a bit of individuality shine though the clichéd dialogue.
Ruby Lewis, as Galileo’s love interest Scaramouche, was another rare bright spot. Bouncy and crisp, she infused her dialogue with sardonic cheer. Lewis sang well, too. And the notes she didn’t hit were at least missed for the right reasons; her voice straining for the sake of passionate delivery rather than Crum’s timidity and restraint.
On the whole, though, the few good performances were overwhelmed by the many average ones, and the little vigor that Lewis and Knowles brought on stage was buried by the lifelessness of those around them and the emptiness of the story itself.
Therein lies the massive irony of “We Will Rock You.” This is a musical about the subversive power of rock ’n’ roll that isn’t the least bit subversive. This is a show that celebrates rock as a raw, fresh, edgy and rebellious medium, yet does so by turning some of the genre’s greatest songs into stale, overpolished pablum and telling a fluffy, predictable tale.
“We Will Rock You” runs through Sunday at Starlight Theater. Tickets are $10-$85 at www.kcstarlight.com.