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'We Will Rock You' opens national tour at Baltimore's Hippodrome

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There's a straightforward, high-octane jukebox musical screaming 'I want to break free' from 'We Will Rock You,' the overstuffed, more or less entertaining tribute to the famed band Queen that opened its North American tour at the Hippodrome Tuesday night.

The show, which started out 11 years ago in London and is still running strong there, painstakingly weaves two dozen songs through a sci-fi scenario that makes the plots of ABBA-fueled "Mamma Mia" or heavy metal salute "Rock of Ages" seem downright Shakespearean by comparison.

There's enough fun stuff in Ben Elton’s script to generate a neat little 75- or 90-minute romp. But "We Will Rock You" goes on for two acts and, counting intermission, burns up something like two and a half hours — nearly three on opening night, when Queen guitarist Brian May made a guest appearance at the end and played up a storm.

If only a ruthless editor could be brought in to gun for the more repetitive or sophomoric jokes, the silliest characters, the most pointless story angles. Then everything could just tightly focus on the real reason for this thing — a celebration of Queen, a band that lit up the scene until lead singer Freddie Mercury died of AIDS in 1991.

That music is certainly worth the homage. At its best, Queen created ear-grabbing songs that boast inventive melodic flights and sly harmonic shifts, whether spinning cool retro riffs in "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" or holding up a sobering mirror-version of "Somewhere" from "West Side Story" in "Who Wants to Live Forever" ("There's no time for us, there's no place for us ...").

The new "We Will Rock You" production has some fearless singers capable of tracing the melodic peaks scaled by Mercury. And there's a hot band that churns out the energy with unflagging flair. Die-hard fans of the original are not likely to be disappointed at the recreations.

(As two of the show's music supervisors, May and Queen drummer Roger Taylor have ensured stylistic faithfulness. They both shared onstage bows with Elton on opening night).

The 2002 script has been revised for the North American tour, taking out some British-isms, tweaking some characters, and squeezing in such topical references as twerking.

Elton, who mined Queen lyrics for many names and references, sets the show in a time far into the future. Earth has been relabeled iPlanet and the lives of all young people, known as Ga Ga Kids, are controlled by giga-corporation Globalsoft and its ruler Killer Queen.

The kids can listen only to preselected, officially approved music, which pretty much boils down to what is called Computer Recorded Auto-tuned Pop (note the acronym, one of Elton's best zingers). They cannot make their own music; instruments are forbidden. In this weird world, rock 'n' roll no longer exists.

But a group of misfits, known as Bohemians, rhapsodize about the ancient art form, which they learn a little about from tantalizing artifacts found in the crumbling remains of something called the Hard Rock Cafe. (Can you spell "product placement," boys and girls?)

A dreamer calling himself Galileo Figaro, who spouts lines of vintage rock lyrics that mysteriously pop into his head, meets an equally nonconformist young woman he dubs Scaramouche. They team up with the Bohemians, determined to discover the meaning of rock and restore its glory.

If you're still awake after reading that synopsis, you will have no trouble hanging on during "We Will Rock You." You might even find the most cliched and tiresome characters good company. But partway through Act 2, everyone onstage forgets all about the plot and just starts rockin'.

Originally designed by Mark Fisher and enhanced with vivid lighting and video, the production offers plenty of visual distraction and provides for smooth scene changes. Tim Goodchild's costume designs jump out with shades of Max Headroom, Devo and goth-punk; the outfits for Killer Queen and her splashy minions are practically Bob Mackie-avellian.

The cast, directed with a mostly propulsive touch by Elton, features Brian Justin Crum as Galileo. He has the deadpan sincerity for the role, but his singing could use more distinctive color and nuance.

Ruby Lewis gives a smart, funny performance as Scaramouche, the cynical rebel with no patience for Facebook friends ("I gave up after I reached 10 million"), and no hesitation about thwarting authorities. Lewis also offers abundant vocal personality; her searing vocalism is one of the production's best assets.

Ryan Knowles is another, nearly stealing the show with his comic sparks as Buddy, a fuzzy-headed Bohemian whose exploration of ancient cultural history needs a pronunciation guide (Buddy says "vie-day-oh" for "video").

Jacqueline B. Arnold has the vocal chops and the attitude to leave a sizable mark as Killer Queen. There are generally effective efforts from the rest of the supporting cast and chorus.

All of the theatrical padding, not to mention the often effortful attempts at humor and irony, can get in the way of what is really an extended, affectionate concert. But the songs triumph in the end and, judging by opening night, still have the power to ignite an audience. Queen's reign is far from over.

"We Will Rock You" runs through Sunday at the Hippodrome.

(Cast photo in thumbnail by Paul Kolnik)

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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MusicQueen (music group)Baltimore BohemiansHIV - AIDSDevo (music group)Rock of Ages Corporation
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