29 March 2007

Still "The Champions", Apparently...

I generally avoid live theatre, only because I find too often twee, pretentious, and worse, overpriced. But tonight, I had a chance to check out We Will Rock You, the musical tribute to the British rock quartet Queen, and not only did I find it surprisingly entertaining--considering I was never really a fan of the band (not even in their heyday when I was just the right age to be doing the "Bohemian Rhapsody" head bounce in my parents' car)--it was also free. But that's not really important...

The fact that it was written and directed by Ben Elton helped immensely. I was already a fan of Elton's from his work with Rowan Atkinson on all four seasons of the "Blackadder" series (on which he was cowriter), "Bean", and "The Thin Blue Line", the odd episode of "The Young Ones" I've happened upon here and there. A friend of mine has also urged me for years to read Elton's satiric Hollywood novel "Popcorn", which I've never gotten around to, but given his reliable tastes and Elton's pedigree, I'm sure it's a pointed and hilarious yarn.

Unlike the ABBA musical "Mamma Mia", which reportedly used a lame wedding plot on which to hinge several dozen familiar hits (suffice to say, I haven't seen it), Elton and co. (ie: the surviving band members, chief among them guitar Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor, with bassist John Deacon MIA and only casually mentioned in the program notes) have concocted a goofy futuristic fable that fuses Orwellian dystopia with "The Matrix"ian prophecy and a healthy dollop of "Footloose"s "the kids are all right" plea for generational tolerance. It goes something like this: in the year 2307, our Earth has been renamed "Planet Mall" and is run by the Globalsoft Corp., under the glammed-up fist of the selfish hedonist Killer Queen and her peroxided flunky Mr. Khashoggi. Culture has been completely commercialized and homogenized into bland, computer-generated pablum, blah blah blah (obviously, this doesn't aspire to be "Children Of Men").

Of course, every quest must have its Arthur (or Neo, or Master Luke...), and here he comes in the form of the impassioned and leather-jacket'd teenager Galileo Figgaro, who hears music lyrics in his head (most of them, not coincidentally, from the Queen's Greatest Hits album) and feels compelled to put them down, which lands him in prison. He's joined in his calling by another rebel: Scaramouche, whose eccentric fashions and attitude make her a misfit to the cliquey "Ga Ga Girls" in her high school. Together, they escape from Killer Queen's fortress and flee to the ravaged wasteland.

Eventually, they hook up with "The Bohemians", who have formed an underground sanctuary ("The Heartbreak Hotel") in a submerged Las Vegas and who have adopted names acknowledging the musical legacies of the past (everyone from Kurt Cobain to Burton Cummings to Britney Spears). "Pop", an aging hippie fossil, has unearthed a ancient videotape recording pointing them to the "Excalibur" of the piece, which here turns out to be Brian May's electric guitar, buried within the now-derelict Wembley Stadium (the rock group Queen, it seems, saw the downfall coming and prepared for a future revolution) and once brandished by Scaramouche (it turns out Figgy can't play, but he can strike all the right poses) brings about Killer Queen's downfall (and an encore presentation of "Bohemian Rhapsody").

Of course, this all sounds pretty friggin' stupid, and well...is it ever. But this isn't something to be taken seriously--clearly, no one on stage is, and besides, musical theatre has a long, heralded tradition of hinging song and dance numbers on many-a far-fetched scenario--no one scoffs at paying big bucks for a performance of "Tales Of Hoffman", which features, among a mad scientist (named Spalanzani), a mechanical woman, and magic glasses.

Elton and Queen 2.0 have updated some of the songs to be "timely", with mixed results: "Radio Ga Ga", originally Mercury's screed bemoaning the death of FM radio and the insidious invasion of disposable pop into the airwaves (in the video, the band hovercrafts through footage from Fritz Lang's "Metropolis", for reasons I've never understood, other than Mercury had a song in Giorgio Moroder's rock-scored version of the silent classic, released about the same time), has been retooled to incorporate "Internet Goo Goo", so now it's a screed against downloading disposable pop ala "American Idol" (although Elton should remember that all this "Idol"atry is, in fact, a British invention). The title theme from 1980's "Flash Gordon" gets a too-brief reference, during a cyber-torture sequence (with its thematically-relevant references to "the pure of heart" and "the Golden Grail", I'd have thought more of the tune would've been used). Not surprisingly, the anthems work best, as do those numbers based upon Mercury's more operatic and melodramatic turns: "Somebody To Love", "Crazy Little Thing Called Love", and "Seven Seas Of Rhye".

All in all, a fun show that pushes all the right buttons in its targeted demographic: aging boomers, who in a perverse contradiction of the show's philosophy, have taken rebellion and subversion and have repackaged it as accessible, family-friendly spectacle. But that'd be reading too much into it--Pope John Paul II would reportedly sing along to Beatles' lyrics, and that doesn't render "Revolution" and "Let It Be" meaningless.

I'll be damned, though, if Elton's gonna get me to pony up for his "Rod Stewart" show...even if it's free. Some things are just wrong, and neither Freddie nor Flash are here to save us...