Wednesday, November 13, 2013

We Will Rock You .. Yes, They Will

We Will Rock You TPAC Jackson Hall

      There are times when I thank my lucky stars to have been born just early enough to catch the tail end of the baby boom, and late enough to have experienced the late 1970s with the appropriate amount of youth and innocence to accept what Queen contributed to rock and roll dramatics and theatre at face value, and not spend any time speculating on Freddie Mercury's sexuality or whether it mattered, at all. In art, tv, and film, the mid-late '70s and the first years of Ronald Reagan were an explosion of ideas and imagination that still had some value for art's own sake, and people dared stupid.

      Let me veer slightly off course and provide a separate example of stupid, fantastic entertainment  that succeeded wildly: 

       At 35 seconds in, one of the most famous exchanges in daytime history: "Luke? I love you ... you aren't going to let anybody freeze to death, are you?" "No, no, no I'm not going to let anybody freeze to death I'll talk to you later." Genie Francis and Tony Geary sold us the Ice Princess in all its cheesy glory because, in that era, the entertainment industry was willing to dare stupid, and offering support to people who were willing to play along. The above clip was from a show at the top of the heap in the Nielson ratings during its original airing. The actors sold it because for the 30 minutes they were performing, they let themselves believe it. That was 1981.
      For Queen, 1980 was the year of both their greatest commercial success and their first relative failure. The Game was their first album to hit #1 on both the UK and US album charts, and it yielded no less than 5 radio hits and two Billboard #1 singles. The Flash Gordon movie sound track, released later in the year, never made it into the top 20 in the US and barely top 10 in the UK. 

      1980 was also the year I got to see Queen at the 8,000-seater in my little town. Because Ticketmaster & charge-by-phone didn't exist in 1980, and the internet didn't either, a teenage kid had a fighting chance to score good seats if they cared enough to get to the box office an hour or more before tickets went on sale and wait. 

Freddie Mercury in and out of a jumpsuit
Richard Aaron photo
      Desire and good fortune put me in the 5th row for the most spectacular, best fucking rock show of my life. It was loud and brash and crude and fun and the light show brought us kids to near-sensory overload. I found the setlist online.  Shit, what a list. 

      And you know what's amazing, looking back? That tour, not just in Glens Falls but all over the place, they started their set with "Jailhouse Rock." And that might not seem significant given the undisputable iconic status Elvis has now, but in where I lived in 1980 teenage kids and twenty-somethings didn't give a crap about Elvis Presley, except for a small tribe of rockabilly fans.  The only Elvis that existed for most of us at that time was still the Fat Elvis in the white studded jumpsuit. But Freddie was a jumpsuit guy, and he dared to be that uncool.  

      So, about We Will Rock You. It's stupid. And it's brilliant. Stupid in how it tries to invalidate pop music that comes from synthesizer use (Queen did, during the 1980s, use synth). What's the point of railing  against the electronic/internet revolution if you're not going to try to break the machine? 
   The plot: 300 years in a future, dystopian society, Earth is called iPlanet and run by Globalsoft Corp. Musical instruments aren't allowed, let alone rock songs. A teen boy is arrested when he comes close to creating his own. In another part of town, a girl is arrested for failure to dress like all the Ga Ga Kids in her school. The two deviants find like souls, run away together and eventually wind up with a tribe of vagabonds at the ruins of the Hard Rock CafĂ© in Las Vegas. The brigands would all love to rock out - if they only knew what it was. 

    The dialog and plotting that gets us to and around all of that is sometimes contradictory, sometimes drags, and often the humor shoots for the low hanging fruit. In spite of all that it works for the same reason Queen's over-the-top live show worked, and the same reason Luke & Laura worked. The actors throw themselves into it with everything they have and no stepping back to consider how ridiculous they might be. The band members, that we can't see most of the time, throw themselves at the material with no holds barred, even though they'll never be Queen. The same can be said for the light set. Over the top and in your face in a way that you might have to cover your eyes, especially near the end. Everything about We Will Rock You is what novelist Tom Robbins' character Quivers would call, "Vivid." 

    A person couldn't ask for much better source material; many of the songs used are on the set list that's linked to, above. Most of the musical performances work great within the context, and "Somebody to Love" is probably my favorite stand-out.

    It may not hold up to all of the rules for brilliant theatre, but We Will Rock You does everything that counts for serious entertainment. As a testament to just how well it entertains, after the company takes their initial bow, there's an unexpected encore. Before the play indicates the encore is coming, the audience was already giving a standing ovation and prepared to go home happy. I won't spoil the surprise for you, but when you realize what you almost didn't mind missing it's icing on the cake.

At TPAC's Jackson Hall through Sunday, Nov. 17. 

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