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Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Review: 'We Will Rock You' a love letter to Queen

Are you ready to rock?

The Straz Center floods Morsani Hall with blinding strobe lights, disco-ball sparkle and seat-shaking guitar riffs for its 2013-14 Broadway season finale, Queen and Ben Elton's “We Will Rock You.”

The long-running London-based musical on its first North American tour, continuing in Tampa through Sunday, is a love letter to the campy excess of the rock group that hit its peak of popularity in the '70s but has remained a cult favorite.

A thinly outlined sci-fi plot is merely a backdrop to showcase occasionally subdued versions of Queen's top hits, pumped out at a volume that had some audience members reaching for earplugs. A solid eight-piece band jams through them all, including “Another One Bites the Dust,” “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” “We Are the Champions,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the title anthem.

Set in a future digital dystopia called iPlanet, where computer-programmed downloads have replaced forbidden musical instruments, “We Will Rock You” pits neon-garbed GaGa Kids with creepily lacquered hair, who talk in text acronyms and hashtags, against a small band of rebels, the Bohemians.

The outsiders' makeshift rebel camp is an abandoned Hard Rock Cafe in Las Vegas strewn with artifacts — concert T-shirt and posters, a 1980s TV and VCR, and larger-than-life statue of Freddie Mercury — from a past they don't fully understand.

Still, they fashion instruments from pieces of scrap, dance a lot in Boy George-meets-punk get-ups, and fervently long for this bygone era they worship, a time when there was “real life, real love – a time when there was rock!”

The Bohemians' anointed leader, the earnest Galileo (Brian Justin Crum), is just a poor boy who's tortured by lyrics from 20th-century singles he's never heard, music that pops into his head and populates his dreams. He speaks in song, a tic that leads to some of the production's funnier moments and inspires the name he gives his female counterpart, the cynical punk princess Scaramouche (Ruby Lewis).

These two stars are fun to watch. Crum and Lewis boast powerful voices and impressive dance chops, and they create strong opposites-attract chemistry onstage with their sweet, if predictable, love story (their “You're My Best Friend” duet is a highlight).

The lovers' comrade, neo-hippie Buddy (Ryan Knowles), steals many scenes as well. The long-haired Bohemian with a stoner vibe is hilarious from the moment he introduces the story, lurching onstage clutching a VHS tape he calls “the rebel archive,” later revealed to contain iconic footage from Queen's heyday.

The sassy, gyrating, fierce-looking Killer Queen (Jacqueline B. Arnold) lords over iPlanet with the help of a lust-struck minion in a “Matrix” Neo-style outfit, Khashoggi (P.J. Griffith).

Don't scrutinize the plotline and character development too heavily; much like Queen itself, “We Will Rock You” is all about the spectacle and the rock. By the time it reached its dramatic encore, the show's opening night at the Straz had even elegant octogenarians pumping their fists and dancing in the aisles.

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