It’s been almost five decades since British band, Queen, formed in London. Today, as much as ever, they’re heralded as one of the greatest rock groups of all time.
Quickly re-acquainting yourself with their back catalogue, it’s easy to understand why that’s the case. Several of their electric and anthemic tracks are ingrained in pop culture, and their astonishingly talented lead singer, the late Freddie Mercury, continues to serve as inspiration to pop and rock artists the world over.
It was hardly surprising therefore to see a sizable slice of their best-known tracks molded into a jukebox musical. Since it first took to the London stage in 2002, We Will Rock You has itself become somewhat of a phenomenon, seen by over 16 million people in 28 countries. When it first arrived in Australia in 2003, it was instantly successful, and went on to score a Helpmann Award nomination for Best Musical.
But while the titanium-grade quality of the tracks that hold it together continue to make We Will Rock You an entertaining night out, its book is light years away from matching that strength and, even with recent updates, spruiks a message that may have already had its day. What may have been edgy and insightful at the turn of the century seems quite cliché in 2016.
Taking place in a world of the future (no longer Earth, instead the ‘iPlanet’), the story is of a time when strict conformity is the name of the game, be it film, fashion or, even, thoughts. Music is computer-generated, and boy and girl bands remain forever in vogue. But a resistance movement – ‘the Bohemians’ – yearn for a legendary golden age, when people were said to have formed their own bands and written their own tunes. They refer to that age as ‘The Rhapsody’.
It’s a slight narrative that affords its creatives the chance to shoehorn in as many classic Queen cuts as is conceivable within a two hour, forty-minute timeframe. Some links between tracks and the story are pretty tenuous and, unfortunately, the book contains an abundance of cheesy references to song lyrics not just from Queen’s own repertoire, but from a variety of artists of the past half a century. And when the jokes in the dialogue don’t rely on recitation of those lyrics, they still tend to be groan-worthy rather than a prompt for proper laughter (even with actors’ tongues planted firmly in cheek). Additionally, the key social messages that sit at the heart of the show are conveyed with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
But for all its shortcomings, the current Australian production of We Will Rock You has much about it that’s worthy of praise. Much of that praise should be lavished on its impressive cast, who perform with a sustained exuberance we rarely have the chance to see outside of a rock concert environment.
As Scaramouche, Erin Clare gives the standout performance. Not only is Clare a powerhouse vocalist, but her portrayal of the rebel heroine is unfalteringly feisty, and her exceptional comic timing ensures she’s consistently the source of the show’s genuinely humourous moments.
Gareth Keegan gives it his all as the lost and confused outsider, Galileo, whose dreams become key to the climatic renaissance of The Rhapsody. It’s a well acted and, on the whole, strongly sung performance. His duets with Clare are particular highlights, those being Queen’s Bowie collaboration ‘Under Pressure’ in Act I, and ‘Hammer to Fall’ in Act II.
Casey Donovan musters every ounce of villainy she can as the maniacal Killer Queen. While her strong rock vocals aren’t particularly surprising, the confidence she exudes in her characterisation of the cartoonish, larger than life evil queen certainly is, demonstrating how well suited the one-time Australian Idol vocalist is to musical theatre.
Thern Reynolds and Jaz Flowers, as rebels Brit and Oz respectively, almost steal the show soon after their arrival on stage with an electric performance of the 1989 hit, ‘I want it all’. Flowers’ vocals here are especially gutsy and astoundingly on point, given the challenging task at hand.
Simon Russell and Brian Mannix round out the principal cast with strong character portrayals, consolidating this as a stellar cast, and the ensemble provides excellent support.
Helping the cast to reach the lofty heights achieved in their performances is a white-hot, eight-piece band under the direction of Dave Skelton, who ensures that every iconic Queen track is given the stadium rock sound they absolutely must have.
All in all, We Will Rock You’s creative flaws don’t stand in the way of making the experience of attending a performance enjoyable, owing significantly to the maestros who inspired the work itself. It may be no Pulitzer prize-winner, but its first-class cast ensures that, musically, it’s an octane-infused tribute that genuinely entertains.
We Will Rock You is currently playing in Sydney before heading to Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide.
For full season details, head to wewillrockyou.com.au.