April 3, 2003
By David Belcher
LONDON: A little guy from Albuquerque with a huge voice is all the rage in London's West End. Tony Vincent, an Albuquerque native and La Cueva High School graduate, plays the male lead in "We Will Rock You," the phenomenally successful West End show based on the music of the '70s British rock band Queen.
Vincent isn't some lost-in-the-shuffle chorus boy - he is the lead character and belts out several solos with amazing energy and enthusiasm. And belting it out is what "We Will Rock You" is all about. This show is definitely not from the "less-is-more" school of theater. The thousands who flock to the cavernous Dominion Theatre nightly aren't looking for usual London theatrical offerings of Shakespeare or Gilbert and Sullivan. They want rock 'n' roll and huge production numbers - and they get it.
What they don't get, unfortunately, is a coherent or terribly inspired story. Vincent plays Galileo Figaro (cue first Queen song), a rebellious youngster in a futuristic police state on Planet Mall (once called Earth) where all music is illegal.
He and his friends have heard of a historical phenomenon called rock 'n' roll and legend says that an ancient god's ax lies buried deep within a rock and was placed there for future generations who would need it for inspiration. A rebellious group of Bohemians (cue second Queen song) are looking for a hero to find this fabled ax and play the ancient rock songs (I guess future generations think that axes can make music).
An evil "Killer Queen" (cue third Queen song) who runs Planet Mall is hot on the Bohemians' trail in a good-vs.-evil, boy-meets-girl plot that has a completely obvious ending. During the show, Vincent's character falls in love with a sarcastic young Bohemian named Scaramuche (cue fourth of 30 Queen songs in this show) who cracks bad jokes and spews attitude but really has a soft side so that, I presume, she can sing a couple of Queen ballads.
Scaramuche, played by Hannah Jane Fox, may be the most broadly drawn and obvious character in musical theater history - an Eliza Doolittle for the punk generation. Ben Elton, who wrote the book for the musical, must think every theatergoer needs the clichid implacable character with a hidden heart of gold. "We Will Rock You" was originally conceived as a musical to chronicle the dramatic life of Freddie Mercury, Queen's flamboyant lead singer who died of AIDS. Perhaps the show's creative team, which consists of two Queen band members, didn't trust that audiences would want to see Mercury's life put on stage, so they opted for a thin plot line disguised as a musical.
In its current incarnation (there is a sequel planned already given the enormous box-office numbers), "We Will Rock You" has a few standout performances, a lot of double-entendre jokes that border on bathroom humor, a serious lack of inspired choreography by West End veteran Arlene Phillips but solid direction by Christopher Renshaw, and some genuinely jaw-draw-droppingly bad plot devices. Just try to explain the set design and concept behind "Fat Bottomed Girls." Olivier Award-nominated Sharon D. Clarke, who plays the Killer Queen, brings something new to several songs, including a smooth, jazzy feeling with "Play the Game," Mercury's cynical yet hummable tune from 1980.
Given several downfalls, it's undeniable that "We Will Rock You" has its charms, and Vincent is certainly one of them. This is the kind of singer any producer would want in a show. He's energetic and passionate - and his voice is suited to the glam rock music that Queen perfected. His cartoonish portrayal of a spastic, rebellious musician is theatrical indeed, if perhaps a bit affected. But Vincent is a singer by training. His roots are in Christian rock and his current aspirations are in pop music, so Vincent clearly knows his way around a song.
This was evident when he portrayed Judas in a disastrous Broadway revival of "Jesus Christ Superstar" a few years back. His performance was genuine and low-key in an over-the-top production. The same can be said for "We Will Rock You." Vincent finds genuine moments in a pretty false-noted musical.
For all of its problems, "We Will Rock You" is the future of musical theater. "Mamma Mia," an international runaway hit, incorporates the music of ABBA into a rousing but totally uninspired evening of theater. "Movin' Out," currently on Broadway, uses Billy Joel's and Twyla Tharp's choreography to thrillingly chronicle youth in the 1960s and '70s. And "Taboo," the musical about the life of Boy George, is also a big hit in London and slated to come to Broadway.
But this new brand of musical theater has its merits. Audiences clearly respond to hearing music that they associate with their past. Many theatergoers can't relate to the music of their parents or grandparents such as Gershwin or Cole Porter - it's simply not part of pop culture.
But radio brought rock 'n' roll to millions in the last 40 years and this clearly is the emotional pull when paying up to $100 a ticket. For those of us who grew up listening to Queen, it's impossible not to tap along to "Another One Bites the Dust" or "Crazy Little Thing Called Love."
What's unfortunate about "We Will Rock You" is that the great Queen songs are far better and more dramatic than the show. There are a few exceptions, most notably when Vincent is belting out "Bohemian Rhapsody" and the title song near the end of the three-hour show. This is when "We Will Rock You" feels like a rock concert, which is what many of us in the audience would prefer: a great singer like Vincent paying homage to a great singer like Mercury.
Forget the gobbledygook story of "futuristic police state on faraway planet where good triumphs over evil amid passionate tale of star-crossed lovers." Wrap some dancing and great voices around good music. Don't dumb down to the audience. Just give us rock 'n' roll - there's no better theater than that.