You are either in on the joke or you just don't get this crazy big outrageous thing called "We Will Rock You."
If you subscribe to Queen's declarations "we are the champions" and "we will rock you," you have come to the right place. "We Will Rock You" doesn't reinvent the jukebox musical so much as it pulls from the concert world and merges the two.
The musical that is a dozen years into a London run and began its first American tour just a week ago in Baltimore is doing its take-no-prisoners pop-culture thing at the Benedum Center while bowing to the genius of the Rock Hall of Famers. The Queen sound is there -- the eight-piece band led by Rick Hip-Flores is a highlight -- and Freddie Mercury's legendary voice gets a moment or two in the spotlight.
Digging deep into the band's catalog, "We Will Rock You" hurls audiences into a future where individual expression is suppressed and a corporate giant rules the i-planet that once was Earth. You know where things are headed from the start, courtesy of a video message opening that mirrors "Star Wars" and quotes "Camelot's" "one brief shining moment." It leads into a scene that could be out of "Logan's Run" and dialogue that's like a quiz of pop culture and rock references.
"Is it the real life, or is it just a fantasy?" echoes throughout the virtual world of conformity and pastel-colored Ga Ga Girls, ruled by "a part human/part pixelated" Killer Queen (Jacqueline B. Arnold), her lieutenant Khashoggi (P.J. Griffith) and her robotic Devo-esque henchman.
The question you may still be asking about now is: Is it Queen, or is it Broadway? Yes -- and yes. "We Will Rock You" is wild and wacky entertainment that confounds convention by bringing in rock-concert elements but also stays true to the formula of rebel boy meets like-minded rebel girl, and they follow a rocky path to love. The book by Ben Elton surrounds Queen songs, with music supervision by original band members Brian May and Roger Taylor, collaborating with Mike Dixon and orchestrator Steve Sidwell.
The London show took six years to develop and cost 7.5 million pounds. In August 2005, it became the longest-running musical to play at The Dominion, one of the West End's biggest theaters, and continues there today. The set design by the late Mark Fisher, the legend behind tours by Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones and U2, leans at times on Max Headroom-style videos, with glorious lighting design by Willie Williams.
If the Green Day musical "American Idiot" brought a fresh gritty anarchy to the Broadway musical, then "We Will Rock You" brings a mash-up of the history of arena concerts and MTV to the stage.
Queen's best-known songs make grudging entrances throughout Act 1, and that might be a drawback for audiences in America, where the charts weren't as kind to the band as they were in the UK. But come Act II, the hits just keep on coming: "Fat Bottomed Girls," "Another One Bites the Dust," "Bicycle Race," "We Are the Champions," the title song and more. I knew it was going to go well when the first strains were of the theme from "Flash Gordon," the 1980 film scored by Queen.
Along the way, you can't help getting caught in a landslide of lyrics and ripped-from-the-tabloid mentions.
Some were groaners and meant to be. The best were delivered by the rebellious Bohemians in their attempt to preserve rock 'n' roll names. Proving a little knowledge can be delightful, the toughest guy in the group called himself Britney Spears and his rock chick was Ozzy Osbourne -- characters played by two of the production's MVPs, Jared Zirilli and Erica Peck. If the name game was meant as a tip of the hat to the book preservationists in "Fahrenheit 451," then nice going, Mr. Elton. That the leader of the band of rebels was named Buddy Holly and the Crickets (MVP No. 3, Ryan Knowles) was pitch perfect, even if his persona was more '70s stoner than '50s rock pioneer.
Brian Justin Crum, whose Broadway credits include Gabe in "Next to Normal," came through Pittsburgh as Wednesday's straight-laced boyfriend in the "The Addams Family." Now he's the high-impact lead to a high-energy show as Galileo, the dreamer who hears song lyrics and music and has visions of "the mighty ax" that will set rock music free. His voice is powerful and theatrical, and if he's not Freddie Mercury, well, who is? And happily, he's not trying to be. He held up his end as the hero of the story and the show. When his head mike conked out early in the second act, he pulled out a handheld microphone and finished the show with it.
Ruby Lewis' Scaramouche -- and if you don't get that reference, do not walk but run to listen to Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" -- is Galileo's counterpart, a goth girl bursting to break free of a prescribed pastel world. They escape from under the Killer Queen's thumb and find their way to the rebels, who live in the shell of the Las Vegas Hard Rock -- a "museum" of the past -- as they try to figure out the meaning of names such as Beyon-key and Pelvis, the Stones who Roll, and Harley Davidson, a name mangled by the hilarious but well-meaning Buddy.
As they are pursued by the Killer Queen in her killer outfits, their own pursuit of the meaning of rock 'n' roll comes into focus, and Vegas, they discover, is not where it can be found.
As the wise Yoda would say, "Do or do not. There is no try." The folks who created "We Will Rock You" said let's go big and pay tribute to the late, great Queen singer Freddie Mercury without stomping on his memory. That they did.
For you folks who smile knowingly at a Yoda quote, at remembering that Queen scored the cult sci-fi campfest "Flash Gordon," or if you sang along with Wayne and Garth to "Bohemian Rhapsody," you get it, and this one's for you.
Sharon Eberson: email@example.com or 412-263-1960.