By BRUCE DENNILL
Queen: It’s A Kinda Magic / Starring Giles Taylor / Mandela, Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, Johannesburg
The stated aim of Queen: It’s A Kinda Magic is to be “ the theatrical creation of the very best of Queen live in concert, delivering the whole Queen experience.” That – and they know it – is a huge ask, given the irreplaceable combination of talent, innovation, showmanship and songwriting genius that existed in the original band.
The (possibly unconscious) expectation – certainly for audiences intimately acquainted with the level of creativity and craft that Freddy Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon produced – is that any attempt to accurately replicate their achievements will fall slightly short at best and woefully so at worst. Place against that expectation repeated declarations (in the show’s marketing and made from the stage during the show) that this touring production will give listeners the same satisfaction as a performance by Queen themselves and an atmosphere is created in which those promises need to be kept if unalloyed approval is ex pected.
Some aspects of this production reach the required level. Drummer Kyle Thompson is all energy, all the time as Roger Taylor, precise and aggressive at the same time, and possessed of a fantastic voice – the best on stage, perhaps. Bassist Steven Dennett as John Deacon is, as a good bassist should be, a rock-solid foundation without being overly flashy.
Richie Baker, playing – happily, as a lack of attention to detail in this area would be a huge black mark against the show – the same type of guitar as Brian May (May made the instrument he used to his own specifications, so it has a huge impact on the overall sound) does exceptionally well to convey the amount of playing the hirsute guitarist was/is responsible for during Queen’s songs, and how those layered ideas, warped scales, jazz chords and all the rest contribute to driving the melodies and supporting the notes sung by Freddie Mercury.
That role – of the flamboyant, buck-toothed, strutting frontman whose mix of apparent arrogance and world-class delivery made him a magnetic stage presence – is filled by Englishman Giles Taylor. It’s an almost thankless gig, as the man he’s playing was such a standout artist, so beloved in both critical and popular circles, that his performance is subjected to more scrutiny than anyone else’s.
Crucially, Taylor doesn’t have Mercury’s range. That’s evident from the opening title track, all the way through to the inevitable closer, Bohemian Rhapsody (which, incidentally, the band may do better to place earlier in the set, before muscles and vocal chords have been extended to their limits). He moves and engages the crowd well, but not being able to hit the big high notes in a set filled with these particular hits is a problem. The audience is anticipating each soaring vocal moment with relish, and though failure to deliver once is not a problem, a dozen such minor lapses do add up.
The other consistent shortfall is the mixing. Queen’s four-part harmonies are as important to their sound as the imposing sounds of May’s guitar, or indeed the delicate treble tinkling of Mercury’s piano on some of the quieter tracks. A surfeit of effects on the voices and a collective compression of the sound while still pumping the volume means that the sound is never as clean or clear as it could be, and occasionally the levels seem to wander, as when Thompson is enlisted for a falsetto part but only has his mic turned up halfway through his verse.
What Queen: It’s A Kinda Magic does very well is underline the brilliance of the band they’re celebrating. In that regard, job done. But it’s a flawed reflection.