Yollandi Nortjie and Joseph Clark

The Queen Experience

DIRECTOR: Elzette Maarschalk

ARTIST: Joseph Clark

VOCALISTS: Altus Theart; Gaabo Motho tenors; Yollandi Nortjie; Zetske van Pletzen; Kate Borthwick

MUSICIANS: Joseph Clark; Nathan Smith; Richard Brokensha; Kate Borthwick; Kyle Petersen; Peach van Pletzen; Trevor Donjeany

VENUE: Joburg Theatre

UNTIL: 17 February

Rating: 3/5

Joseph Clark has been channelling the spirit of Freddie Mercury for over 20 years. In the programme notes, he even relates some of the similarities between his life story and that of the legendary Queen frontman.

The fruits of his fascination with one of the greatest bands ever is evident on stage – Clark is the consummate showman, striking all the right poses and hitting the right notes. He is all fire and flirt when giving life to Queen stadium anthems like “Somebody to Love”, “We Are the Champions” and “Don’t Stop Me Now”, then deftly changes the mood for heart-wrenching ballads like “You Take My Breath Away” and “In My Defence”.

Behind his histrionics, a tight-knit collection of musicians are having some serious fun. It’s infectious watching a group of seasoned players still capable of enjoying the moment, despite having probably played this material to death. Even Clark’s special guests are tuned into the prevailing mood, with Theart and the Gaabo Motho tenors giving a good account of themselves.

Leading them into the fray is Smith, a guitar virtuoso who has the unforgiving task of reigniting Brian May’s signature sound. He does so with aplomb, fully vindicating Clark who described him as “one of the best guitarists in the world”.

But the biggest surprise of the evening came from Clark’s sassy trio of backing vocalists, doing their utmost to recreate the vocal layering that gave Queen part of their musical edge. It’s an essential role, and bar a few missteps in the embarrassing “Bicycle Race” choreography, Borthwick, Nortjie and Zetske – both as a unit and in their solos – give Clark’s lead the full rock opera dressing.

Nortjie, however, almost stole the show. Montserrat Caballe’s duet with Mercury must have been an intimidating prospect, but Nortjie leaves even Clark in her shadow with a powerful rendition of “Barcelona” that brought the house to its feet.

Which is, if truth be told, where the audience should have been all along.

Staging a Queen tribute in a theatre creates a strange disconnect between the rousing nature of stadium rock and the expectations of an audience. No one was really sure whether they were allowed to stand up and sing along or dance. Instead, most opted to sit politely through each number and applaud at the end.

The band tried to get the crowd going, but those “wave your hands in the air” moments create a kind of cheesy “Noot vir Noot” atmosphere. The music and the band deserved so much more.