There was a battle line drawn right at the start of "A Night at the Rock Opera" on Friday, a line that separated the Wilbur Theatre from the more saccharine goings-on next door at the Wang Theatre. The performance began with the declaration, "This ain't no freakin' 'High School Musical,' people," and for 2 hours and 15 minutes (with intermission), the seven musicians and 17 singers of the Ultrasonic Rock Orchestra wanted everyone to know that this was serious rock music. Roll over, Chuck Berry, and while you're at it, tell Zac Efron the news.
Still, the URO was all in this together, and the number of performers and arena-show setup - plenty of instrument risers and a light-rigging halo overhead - on a stage the size of the average movie theater created the sensation of being overwhelmed. Which was precisely the point when re-creating the mega-theatrical rock of Queen and David Bowie and performing side two of the Beatles' "Abbey Road" in its entirety (including the false ending leading into "Her Majesty").
That created a delicate balance between embodying the outsize clichés that gave the music its punch and falling prey to inadvertently hilarious self-parody. The costumes came close to tipping the scales, with enough leather, pirate shirts, quasi-military jackets, and guyliner to outfit a My Chemical Romance video shoot.
But the URO truly crossed that line with the original "Child Thy Name Is Rock," which was delivered with the self-seriousness needed to leapfrog Tenacious D and land in Spinal Tap country. The number was part of a four-song suite (which sounded like a cross between a super-electric "Godspell" and "Rent") about the origins of the URO, which began as an attempt at a production of "Jesus Christ Superstar" quashed by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Individually, the performers did the jobs expected of them and not much more, with a few (including show co-creator Sal Clemente) sounding like Broadway's concept of rock singing. But they massed their forces into a full rock choir on "Simon Zealotes," "Somebody to Love" and the Joe Cocker arrangement of "With a Little Help From My Friends."
And, of course, there was the program-ending "Bohemian Rhapsody," with all of the pomp, bombast, and quasi-operatic grandeur necessary to pull it off. Too bad it was followed by an encore of Queen's ridiculous "Flash" and a strong, if unnecessary, "Live and Let Die." Sometimes, even with a genre built on excess, it's important to know when enough is enough.