Earlier this month, a crowd of 65,000 at Hyde Park in London awaiting the start of a Green Day concert spontaneously united in a singalong to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” as it was piped over the loudspeakers. Captured on video, the five-minute clip has gotten nearly four million views on YouTube in a little over a week. In so many ways, this anecdote embodies the power of Queen, the enduring British rock band originally led by inimitable frontman Freddie Mercury, who died in 1991. The band boasts 18 number one albums, and its progressive anthem rock is recognizable to anyone who has witnessed a sporting event live or on television, or has spun through the FM dial anytime after 1973.
And this power, this music, coupled with the all-around talent at The Barn Theatre, is the strength of We Will Rock You, the jukebox musical and third show of the theater’s 71st summer stock season.
Constructed by British writer Ben Elton in conjunction with original Queen band members Brian May and Roger Taylor in 2000, the musical has had a long, award-winning West End run but never hit Broadway, and is fairly universally criticized for its strange and inconsistent plot.
In this dystopian tale, life is lived entirely online; people only have user IDs, not names; rock ‘n’ roll is dead; music is programmed, not played with actual instruments; and a rebel group who call themselves Bohemians go by names of once-living rock and pop stars (Britney Spears, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Oz for Ozzie Osborne, etc.), and take refuge in a Hard Rock Cafe (“the last free-thinking zone on the iPlanet”), struggle against the iPlanet’s evil ruling globalist corporation Globalsoft and its Orwellian police force to restore free thought, individuality and the right to rock.
Goofy, yes; and yet not quite as far fetched as it may have been nearly 20 years ago to imagine a world in which one might get picked up for “delinquent anti-social media behavior.”
But no one does rock musicals quite like Director Brendan Ragotzy, who has been wowing audiences for decades with such shows as The Rocky Horror Show, Rock of Ages, Green Day’s American Idiot, and most recently, Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story. Even with a questionable script, using an excellent, well-seasoned cast, fantastic musicians and music direction from Matt Shabala, Ragotzy makes good on the promise that “We Will Rock You” while also milking the most from the show’s humor and camp.
Leading the camp front are evil villains Penelope Alex as Globalsoft ruler Killer Queen and her henchman Khashoggi, played with fun flair by Eric Parker. They've been exercising their soaring rock-and-roll voices together for decades at the Barn, notably as another delightfully dark and twisted duo, Magenta and Riff Raff, in last year’s Rocky Horror Show. And in We Will Rock You, they have the opportunity to create some wonderful harmonies together.
Despite some technical issues with her mic opening night, Alex’s magnificent presence and voice (dressed by Costume Designer Payge Crock in a bedazzled black lace corset and light-up skirt and collar) owned the stage, particularly in “Fat Bottomed Girls,” which became a booty-shaking feminist anthem, and “Another One Bites The Dust.”
Another nicely-cast pair are Bohemians Dani Apple as a big-voiced Oz with a fantastic note-bending vibrato, and Chase Gray as a physically-dynamic Brit. Their lively performance starts the audience participation in “I Want It All” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”
The leads — Quinn Moran as Galileo Figaro, whom the Bohemians believe is their leader because he dreams/downloads lyrics from dead rock songs, and Samantha Rickard as the sassy, snarky “female assertive” Scaramouche — are wonderful together, especially in “Who Wants to Live Forever.” Her voice and presence are both strong and sweet, and though he in no way imitates Freddie Mercury, his voice carries a similar dramatic vivaciousness. Though on opening night his voice sounded strained at times, in the smaller scale cabaret bar show following the performance, his singing was thoroughly fierce.
Queen’s music is no doubt demanding to perform, particularly vocally, and these singers are pretty astounding. As are the musicians, including a stellar on-stage guitar solo from Cam Taylor.
There’s also more interesting choreography here than one might expect, and Jamey Grisham maximizes fist pumps, hip shakes, air guitar, jazz hands, and side kicks. The corps work is particularly impressive in numbers such as “Radio Gaga” featuring the Gaga Kids as zombie-like Robert Palmer women (and men).
Queen fans should not expect a tribute concert; however, the last 15 minutes of the show offer fabulous renditions of “We Will Rock You,” “We are the Champions.” and one of the greatest curtain call and encore performances ever with a goosebumps-inducing “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
We Will Rock You