When you’re sitting through the inane “We Will Rock You’’ at the Boston Opera House — not that I recommend you do — the show’s title can start to take on the menacing aura of a threat.
As in: We will bombard you. We will pummel you. We will obliterate subtlety, true originality, and narrative coherence. We will trowel on sounds and sights in the fervent hope you will mistake this garish shriekfest for entertainment.
So “We Will Rock You’’ relentlessly assaults the ear and the eye, though I’d say the brain gets the worst of it. This is musical theater at its most dumbed-down, formulaic, and calculating. It’s essentially a video game performed by flesh-and-blood actors.
OK, since it’s built on two dozen songs by the rock band Queen, “We Will Rock You’’ can technically be classified as a jukebox musical. But it has little of the sneaky charm of “Jersey Boys,’’ “Million Dollar Quartet,’’ or “Mamma Mia!’’ Whatever their flaws, those shows at least have a heart. What distinguishes “We Will Rock You’’ is a Vegas-style commercial instinct and a machine-tooled soullessness that is close in spirit (or the lack of it) to “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.’’
Script writer Ben Elton is clearly capable of better. He gets off some funny lines. But no pop-culture allusion is too obvious or tired for Elton, who tosses in references to Facebook, Miley Cyrus and twerking, the Jonas Brothers, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Eminem, Britney Spears — pretty much anyone and anything guaranteed to garner a “Whoo!’’ from spectators whose lung power exceeds their powers of discernment.
Since shows like these must offer some kind of story on the way to the bank, Elton concocted a tale set in the future, where Earth is now called the iPlanet. A sinister corporation called Globalsoft — ruled by the Killer Queen (Jacqueline B. Arnold), with the assistance of her henchman, Khashoggi (P.J. Griffith) — exerts control over every aspect of everyday life.
It is illegal to create music on the iPlanet, where musical instruments are expressly prohibited. “The kids will never, ever rock again!’’ declares the Killer Queen, in a fair sample of the show’s dialogue. Conformity in dress, behavior, and thought is strictly enforced. Ah, but there lives in this blighted land a rebellious young chap named Galileo (Brian Justin Crum), who wants to make his own music. Galileo keeps hearing lyrics of old rock songs in his head; he believes he has a special destiny.
Romance enters the picture when Galileo meets a young social outcast who is (eventually) named Scaramouche, played by Ruby Lewis. The two of them connect with the Bohemians, a band of dissidents who are hiding from the powers that be. There’s some business about a prophecy that foretells the arrival of a messiah-like “Dreamer’’ who shall one day appear and lead the way to a hidden “mighty axe’’ (guitar) and thus set the people free through the — wait for it — power of rock ’n’ roll.
The cast tasked with making their way through this minefield of clichés is large, energetic, and generally capable, though not terribly diverse. (At intermission, a co-worker who was in the audience said to me sardonically: “Did you know there are no black people in the future, except for the evil queen?’’) As a colorfully raucous Buddy, Ryan Knowles delivers a standout performance.
Yes, it was nice to hear “We Are the Champions’’ in the afterglow of the Red Sox World Series victory. Sure, “Bohemian Rhapsody’’ retains its kitschy charm. Ditto for “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.’’
But there’s a screechy sameness to much of Queen’s music, and its emotional palette is narrow, with lyrics that don’t always mesh with the story “We Will Rock You’’ seeks to tell. Scene after scene, as the pieces clank predictably into place, there’s too little of the playfully subversive wit that redeemed musicals as different as “Xanadu’’ and “Rock of Ages.’’
The broader problem presented by bloated musicals like “We Will Rock You’’ has to do with their stranglehold on the contemporary stage. This show has been running in London’s West End for more than a decade and, according to press materials, has been performed in 17 countries before more than 15 million people.
You’ve got to wonder: How many original musicals, works that could help revitalize the form, have been stuck on the sidelines, struggling for oxygen, while meretricious moneymakers like “We Will Rock You’’ have been strutting their prefabricated stuff?