What a betrayal.
That's what I kept thinking during the long, slow slog through rock 'n' roll cliché that is "We Will Rock You," the jukebox musical built around the songs of Queen that opened Wednesday night at the Ahmanson Theatre.
A king-sized success in London, where it closed in May after a 12-year run, the show (now on its first U.S. tour) uses Queen's hits — "Killer Queen," "Bohemian Rhapsody," "Another One Bites the Dust" — to fill the considerable holes in a barely there story set in a corporatized dystopia in which hand-played music has been outlawed in favor of computer-tooled pop.
Why did "real rock" die? It's typically unclear, though one character tells us it had something to do with "American Idol," the televised singing competition that produced Adam Lambert, who's on the road as … Queen's frontman.
But it's not the lame plot that's the problem here. (Nobody else knows what "Bohemian Rhapsody" is about either.)
Rather, "We Will Rock You," with a script by Ben Elton, feels like such an affront because it embodies so many of the qualities that Queen renounced. It's shallow. It's cynical. And it's dumb, dumb, dumb.
What the musical is not is poorly sung. As Galileo and Scaramouche, a pair of young lovers rebelling against the tyrannical Globalsoft, Brian Justin Crum and Ruby Lewis sound fine belting out the stadium-scaled melodic lines made famous by Queen's late frontman, Freddie Mercury. In "You're My Best Friend" they even improve on his recorded performance, blending their voices with a soulful intensity that pushes the music in a new direction.
Jacqueline B. Arnold is good in an appealingly naughty "Killer Queen" that she sings as the corporation's imperious overlord. And, of course, the members of the chorus make themselves useful delivering the massed harmony vocals of "Bohemian Rhapsody" and the musical's football chant of a title song. (An eight-piece live band backs the cast from a visible perch onstage.)
But everything else about "We Will Rock You" — from the crude sets to the corny costumes to the hackneyed dialogue about the transformative power of a cranked-up guitar — might have come from a parody of a rock 'n' roll musical.
Galileo and Scaramouche are stock depictions of leather-and-fishnet types, with zero specificity about what's driving them on their quest to locate a magical instrument that promises to loosen Globalsoft's stranglehold on organic creativity. The same goes for Brit, another member of the rebel group (played by Jared Zirilli), except that in addition to being painfully earnest he's painfully dense; it's a hey-dude caricature that should've died along with the compact disc.
What's most pernicious about the musical's tired ideas is how woefully they misrepresent what Queen was all about. A frontman as thoughtful and hard-to-categorize as rock has ever known, Mercury was the opposite of a stock figure; he expanded the dimensions of the singer's job, constantly looking beyond himself for fresh inspiration.
And though "We Will Rock You" makes dozens of cheap jokes about the perceived frivolity of manufactured pop, Queen itself never seemed interested in such old-fashioned chauvinism. Opera, disco, rockabilly, soul – the band's sound mutated as quickly as Mercury's onstage wardrobe.
To be clear, I have no quarrel with anyone reconsidering a classic act's legacy, even with a radical adjustment. The trouble with the concert that Queen's current incarnation played this month at the Forum was that it relied too heavily on the crowd's memories of Mercury; the gig made no room for Lambert, who'd presumably been hired to bring new energy to an old machine.
But the liberties that "We Will Rock You" takes with Queen don't expand that still-potent brand; they only narrow our understanding of the group and its music.
If it weren't sanctioned by the outfit's surviving members, I'd call it an attempted Queen killer.