Theater Review: Good Performances but ‘We Will Rock You’ Has Mud on its Face

WWRY1-352_WWRockThank heavens for good actors and musicians. Without them slogging through Ben Elton’s confused book for We Will Rock You would be as enjoyable as a root canal.

How I wanted to feel otherwise as I entered Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Jackson Hall Tuesday for the Nashville opening of the show’s North American tour. After all, this show’s been a big hit in London for more than a decade, I have nothing against the music of Queen and among his non-theater credits Elton helped provide the TV comic joys of “The Young Ones” and “Blackadder” just to name two. In 1999 I even saw a production of his play Popcorn in Sydney, Australia that was fairly enjoyable.

But after sitting for more than two hours the best that I could say about a script where supposedly-classic-rock “bohemians” apparently like Justin Bieber – and (despite access to “secret” archives about the music they love) actually think Britney Spears, Katy Perry and Sir Mix-A-Lot belong to the same musical discipline as The Beatles, Elvis Presley and Freddie Mercury and friends – was that it offered an excuse to hear some talented folks sing and play. Perhaps good performances are why it’s been a smash in London but the script is why it hasn’t been on Broadway yet (maybe Robert DeNiro and others backing this hope tour ticket sales will get them there somehow). And when you’ve got dialogue exchanges like “We’re a threat! A virus on their hard drive. And they won’t give up until they’ve pointed their little arrow at us…” “…and dragged us to trash!” you know you’re in for a night full of the trite and somewhat topical – the rip on Microsoft is already dated.

There’s also a running gag where characters quote song lyrics which wears thin after the first few minutes. Being clever with other writers’ lines is easy enough – check out the reference made in the headline to this review – but it’s a sign of greater (and original) cleverness to come up with words of your own. And songs like “You’re My Best Friend” are put in the wrong place – the two lead characters sing it before they truly become mates. Huh?

WWRY3-24_WRockBecause of my feelings about this musical’s book – where the plot points are predictable and the stakes never truly get higher – I’m going to skip a story setup and tell you that the saving grace of this tour is that Ruby Lewis (as leading lady Scaramouche) and Brian Justin Crum (as dreamer-guy Galileo) are terrific. “I Want to Break Free” and “Somebody to Love” are their calling cards, and both have the pipes, the power and the persuasion in their voices that the score demands.

Kudos go to Jacqueline B. Arnold as Killer Queen and P.J. Griffith as Khashoggi, though these two villains are too easily vanquished in Elton’s script; Ryan Knowles as Buddy (as in Holly and the Crickets) has his moments too. The rest of the cast energetically sings and dances quite well.

The band led by Musical Director/Conductor Rick Hip-Flores that plays high overhead deserves praise for their work as well. Keyboardists Justin Hornback and Emily Marshall, guitarists Tristan Avakian and Bob Wegner, bass player Mike Cohen, percussionist David Stevens and drummer Danny Young, who have been aided by Musical Coordinator John Miller, certainly know how to rock out.

So, if you want to hear good live versions of the aforementioned songs along with – of course – “Another One Bites the Dust” and show closers “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions,” then sit through the rest of We Will Rock You waiting for them. But don’t go expecting a full-fledged musical – this is at most a revue and at least a well-dressed concert despite the wonderful union performers who give it their all.

WWRY1-318_WRock_Crop2HCA/TriStar Health Broadway at TPAC presents We Will Rock You through Sunday, Nov. 17 in Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Jackson Hall. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. For tickets (starting at $15) go to www.tpac.org, the TPAC box office or call (615) 782-4040. The tour’s website is at www.wewillrockyou.com.

*Photos by Paul Kolnik courtesy We Will Rock You tour and TPAC.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).

Comments

  1. Alice raver says:

    I have often felt that musicals created with thin plots and old but good music were just a money grab. Mamma Mia was the first one I remember. This production feels the same and though I love musicals, I’ll pass on this one. Jersey Boys was based on truth so I don’t include it in such a group. But there are others that are similar in creation. Thank you for your gentle but honest critique.

  2. Amy B says:

    I went this week. It was a long two hours.
    I wish I would have skipped it.