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Theater Review: Ben Elton’s ‘We Will Rock You’ (Baltimore, MD)

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Baltimore, MD had a little star power this week as Ben Elton, Brian May and Roger Taylor of Queen were on hand at the beautiful France-Merrick Performing Arts Center Hippodrome Theater to kick off the North American 24 city tour of their hugely successful London musical We Will Rock You.

This show is an easy sell; who doesn’t love Queen? When I first heard the title, I just assumed that it would be a semi-autobiographical take on the life, times and music of Queen. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be something completely different.

We Will Rock You is set in a futuristic world where an evil corporation has taken over everything and all of society is trapped in a corporatized homogenous world where all music is computer recorded, auto produced (CRAP) – no one even knows what a guitar is and instead of having real friends everyone is connected to the internet and social networks. Being an outcast and “individual” is no longer allowed and people have a assigned hashtag/screen name as their real name.

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At times, show creator Ben Elton’s script comes across as weirdly schizophrenic and ironic – not sure if this was intentional or not; or another way to put it, an angry old man railing against the current state of kids’ music. Something many said about Queen back in the day.

There is one moment early on in the show where one of the characters asks “What happened to Rock N Roll?” and someone comments that its downfall started with an old show called American Idol that promoted a bunch of non-talented over-produced singers and corporatized everything. Not only a funny in-line delivery, but didn’t I just see former American Idol contestant Adam Lambert fronting Queen at the IheartMusicFestival?  I laughed for about 10 minutes at the irony.

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Since this is largely a British show, writer Ben Elton has refined it and changed elements for an American audience. Some of the changes are very easy to spot as there are tons of references to current American Pop Culture including Miley Cyrus twerking jokes, jokes about Katy Perry’s Roar, Brittany Spears jokes, references to songs like Baby Got Back and more.

The dialog is so amazingly, unashamedly, cheesy that you can’t help but just roll with it. The show gets away with this because the hero Galileo Fandango (Brian Justin Crum) dreams of song and lyric snippets from the past.  He eventually meets a girl who got into trouble for not conforming to the Teen Queens – The Lady Ga Gas. Which is another piece of irony, since the real Lady GaGa is all about non-conformity.  He gives her the name of Scaramouche (Ruby Lewis). There really is an evil Killer Queen (Jacqueline B. Arnold) in this.

When Galilieo and Scaramouche meet the resistance fighters known as the Bohemians the show just goes completely crazy. All of them took the names of rock stars of the past: the males all took female names and the females took the names of males. Yes, folks it’s that type of show.

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Queen was one of the first rock groups to embrace outrageous theatricality, so this show feels natural, obvious, and not like a cheap gimmick.  From Willie Williams’ lighting design to Elton staging this 2 1/2 hour production to feel like an old-school Queen concert. There are numerous standout performances including Ruby Lewis amazing vocals on “Somebody to Love.”

There is an odd, but beautiful, moment where the show gets serious and pays tribute to Freddy Mercury and other former rock legends. Erica Pek (Oz) gives an emotional performance on No-One But You. In a show filled with highlights, this was my favorite.

Other classics include “Radio Ga Ga” (in my opinion, one of Queen’s most underrated songs), “A Kind of Magic,” “You’re my Best Friend,” “Under Pressure,” “Fat Bottomed Girls,” “Another One Bites The Dust,” “Who Wants to Live Forever,” and more. The power of being in a live theater during “We Will Rock You” cannot be overstated; the theater felt like it was shaking! The Baltimore Crowd got a surprise treat as Brian May played during Bohemian Rhapsody.

We Will Rock You is one wonderfully odd, colorful, sarcastic, non-traditional, over the top campy show that frequently goes for the jugular. It is everything Rock and Roll should be.

We Will Rock You is currently in a limited engagement at The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center Hippodrome Theater until October 20th, for ticket information and tour schedule visit WeWillRockYou.com.

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About Michelle Alexandria