Sydney audiences appreciate a jukebox musical. If the crowd on opening night of We Will Rock You is anything to go by, a Queen-inspired musical will always find its support in a raucous audience that knows (and often sings along) to all the songs. And as long as that’s the case, producers will keep bringing us these kinds of tuners: light on substance, but easy crowd pleasers.
Set in a dystopian futuristic world, in its early days We Will Rock You was ahead of its time – envisioning a future where society would be overwrought by technology. The book has been updated to stay relevant in a time (references to Twitter abound) when a lot of the technology envisaged a decade ago has become reality, and to include pop-culture references (numerous social media references, and a reference to Australian idol) keeping the humour relevant for another generation.
In a society ruled by Killer Queen (a half human, half digital apparition, played by Casey Donovan) and her minions, mindless conformity is enforced. Amidst GaGa girls and the BoyZone, two young outsiders find each other when authorities capture them because of their alternate views. Galileo Figaro (Gareth Keegan) and Scaramouche (Erin Clare) have never fit in, but when they escape from captivity and meet Oz (Jaz Flowers) and Brit (Thern Reynolds), who belong to the Bohemians, a rebel group who worship ‘Rock n Roll’ and are searching for the prophesied dreamer to bring back Rock, they might have just found their place in the world.
The biggest flaw of the book (by writer at large Ben Elton) is not the overall narrative but rather its attempt to force these iconic songs into scenes where they don’t belong. Rarely do scenes reach the moment where singing feels necessary as a dramatic device, and even when they do, the link between the preceding dialogue of the scene and lyrics of the song are tenuous at best. The book mainly tries to woo audiences with corny references and one-liners (‘Hit me baby one more time!’ or my personal favourite ‘we are never ever ever getting back together’), which occasionally work, but when you stack song lyric after song lyric together, the humour gets old quickly.
The music is what truly rocks in this musical, though Bobby Aitken’s sound design is occasionally unbalanced. The band roars under direction of David Skelton, though overpowers some of the best moments of song and drowns lyrics out. The ensemble blends well and delivers a rich and dynamic sound, and the leads, for the most part, do an impressive job at nailing these iconic anthems.
Gareth Keegan is an adequate Galileo, although his intention is not always clear in each scene. Erin Clare has really established herself as a star as Scaramouche in her first leading role. Clare plays every moment with a fiery energy and attack without shying away from the more nuanced and softer moments to reveal Scaramouche’s vulnerabilities and insecurities. And Clare’s voice soars. From her first song, ‘Somebody to Love,’ it is clear she can belt out these Queen hits with power and control.
Casey Donovan’s Killer Queen plays up to all the sensual power and fire of her character and oz rocker Brian Mannix’s Buddy delivers a likeable Bohemian leader. Jaz Flowers as Oz and Thern Reynolds as Brit both nail the comedy of the show with ease, and when Flowers sings ‘No One But You ’ she takes us on a poignant emotional journey.
The futuristic inspired design (lighting by Willie Williams, set by Mark Fisher and Stufish Entertainment Architects) is dated now, and particularly in the GaGa scenes seems cheesy. The Bohemian scenes set in their Hard Rock café is a little more grunge; it almost has an edge of authenticity. The design is ultimately just another attempt to wow audiences with pyrotechnics and laser light displays, and there’s no denying that this works for some.
The choreography is simple. Its biggest aim, particularly in the GaGa scenes, is to emphasise conformity – yet the execution of these combinations by the ensemble is messy and thus takes away from this idea of unity. Some moments work better than others, particularly the Bohemian scenes (which are by their nature a little more freewheeling) such as the act one closer, ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’, which is a fun-filled, energetic number.
We Will Rock You, despite its flaws, has got the music and the laughs, for the most part, and that will be enough to please a lot of people. As long as you put aside your intellect and desire for a sound story, and come ready for good music and a good time, then you’ll enjoy it.