Killing Queen: Review of Lyric Theatre’s We Will Rock You
This year, the Lyric Theatre plays host to the glittery, revamped musical We Will Rock You, a story which chronicles the recovery of rock’n’roll in a far and distant future. The musical is said to be by Queen and Ben Elton, though this really translates to Queen songs (only slightly adapted by Brian May) with the play book written by Ben Elton. Unfortunately, its draw card is also its biggest failing.
We Will Rock You chronicles the struggle of a group of Bohemians to restore freedom of expression in a futuristic world now run by GlobalSoft (a multinational corporation). In this dystopia, everything is digital, and nothing is real. Instruments and song writers are forbidden, and rock music is largely forgotten. Our protagonist is Galileo Figaro, a boy who dreams up song lyrics. He meets and befriends Scaramouche – a sarcastic, cynical, purple haired ‘chick’ and together, they attempt to escape the iron fist of the Killer Queen and her second in command, Khashoggi. In doing so, they run into the Bohemians, headed up by Buddy (Holly and the Crickets), Oz(zy Osborne) and Brit(tney Spears) – names adopted from old poster fragments. The group is captured and tortured, left brainwashed and empty, and so begins Galileo Figaro’s quest to save the Bohemians, and fulfil his destiny to return rock’n’roll to the world.
Certainly, the idea sounds manoeuvrable yet the result is far less satisfying. This is largely due to a weak (read lazy) script. With a writer such as Ben Elton at the helm, one would assume that the book is sharp, biting and satirical. Instead, the script is littered with increasingly predictable song title word plays, and the dialogue is merely used as a vehicle to introduce Queen’s music. In other words, songs guide the story, rather than the story guiding the songs. As a result, we are left with superficial thematic relevance instead of meaningful interaction between characters. To be sure, the script has its’ moments (“they think I’m a lesbian because I don’t wear pastels”), but the final product feels unfinished, much like the ending.
Of particular interest is the stylistic choice made by costume designer Tim Goodchild, where the main costume theme is punk with an English twist. Yet anyone who is anyone would know that the punk movement of the early 1970s (particularly the music that derived that fashion sense) formed as a direct reaction to the music of bands such as Queen and the brand of rock that was emerging throughout the 1970s. This was due to the view that rock had become decadent and indulgent, moving away from its true, simplistic working class roots. Whilst artistic license is always encouraged, it feels like a mismatch on this particular occasion. Finally, one cannot overlook the fact that the script runs a thread of heteronormative masculinity. This is disappointing since Freddie was so very clearly smashing such moulds. It is also disappointing that the female lead overwhelmingly serves as a plot device, and only very superficially serves a feminist smack down, which is seemingly crafted out of writer’s panic, having realised their overuse of the male hero cliché.
So to the cast: Gareth Keegan plays Galileo, our Freddie Mercury reincarnation. Based on the performance however, this description is a stretch. Keegan certainly has potential, but one could not look past the glaring ‘pitchiness’ that precipitated opening night. It is unfortunate that his ‘dramatic’ performance also lacked substance, as it made for a thoroughly underwhelming lead. Erin Clare was far more satisfying as Scaramouche, delivering all her lines with sass drowned in dry London ‘gravel’. To be fair, Clare had more to work with (dialogue wise), yet her vocal performance was also superior to her co-star. Clare was elegant and soulful in her rendition of “Find Me Somebody to Love”, something she maintained the entire evening.
The supporting cast was less of a mixed bag, save for Brian Mannix who essentially played Brian Mannix à la Buddy, though this still made for some great comedic moments. Of note was Casey Donovan who, as a musical theatre amateur, made a killing as the Killer Queen. Donovan gave us camp, confident and powerful, which made for a deliciously futuristic ‘Ursula’ style performance. Her singing capabilities were certainly solid, though the sound mix did not cater for her weaker lower register. On opening night, Donovan did also overuse her throat in an attempt to achieve vocal growl; if this was noticeably affecting her voice after one song, Donovan will almost certainly need to find a more sustainable way of achieving this sound. Despite this however, Donovan simply triumphed. On the other end of the scale, Simon Russell (as Khashoggi, Killer Queen’s minion) stood out as being the most experienced board-treader. He performed his evil henchman duties with theatricality, and sung with aplomb.
A definite performance highlight came from Thern Reynolds as Brit and Jaz Flowers as Oz, the front-runner rebel bohemians. Looking like something out of Housos, Reynolds and Flowers were both comically adept, but also capable of moments of pause and clarity (see Flowers’ solo performance of “No One but You” which would challenge even Christina Aguilera). To put it simply, both performers were the breath of fresh air We Will Rock You had to have.
Ben Elton serves as director this time around, and whilst the production appears to have suitable bounce, one gets the feeling that a little more direction could have been applied to the leads. Of note, the band, led by musical director David Skelton, was flawless – authentic rockers, one might say, judging by the Metallica and Iron Maiden t-shirts. Arlene Phillips and Siobhan Ginty choreographed suitably, though perhaps a little repetitively. To this end, the ensemble was largely satisfactory, though timing (read tightness) became an issue.
Audiences may still enjoy this musical, purely for the novelty of seeing Queen songs being performed. Nevertheless, it is a mammoth task to create a musical with music that was never written for this purpose. Many would agree that perhaps it is a task best left in the ideas box. Certainly, there are good things about this show, but overwhelmingly it feels lazy, and leaves one cringing at the rather limp attempt of putting on a musical about rock. If rock is to be honoured sincerely, then the piece needs to be revamped in a way that acknowledges the genre for what it was. The greatest irony is that Freddie Mercury and Queen is most certainly musical theatre’s rock and roll (even the name says so). With this knowledge however, perhaps it would have been better to craft a show about the music makers, and let musical theatre do what it does best, and leave the rock to people who actually understand it.
We Will Rock You is playing at the Sydney Lyric Theatre from April 20 to June 26, 2016. For more information and tickets please visit http://wewillrockyou.com.au/.
Written by S.A and R.E.