MJ The Michael Jackson Musical - Neil Simon Theatre
This review was composed to be translated for Blickpunkt Musical, the German magazine on international musical theatre.
The genius of the new musical “MJ '' lies in the musical genius of Michael Jackson himself and the genius of director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon in celebrating Jackon’s genius. As for “MJ”’s author, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage, her genius is how she sidesteps Jackson’s inner demons. Nottage is writing for Jackson’s estate, prime movers for the show; even Pulitzer winners write for hire.
But one’s got to give Nottage’s talent its due. Her narrative and thematic concept is brilliantly expedient, a tour-de-force sleight of hand. The show’s setting is a Los Angeles rehearsal studio for Jackson’s 1992 concert tour of Dangerous as a dozen back-up singers and dancers and 10-piece band await the arrival of the superstar. Later, onto the scene comes an ambitious Entertainment Tonight-like reporter and cameraman to document the making of the tour. Nottage uses the reporter to scratch the surface of Jackson’s eccentricities. Over the course of the 2:30 minute show, she sniffs out Jackson’s drug use and confronts him about things like his plastic surgery and skin lightening. The reporter makes a vague reference to “other rumors”. One can only assume this refers to Jackson’s fascination with children. Nottage slyly exploits the historical timeline here: allegations about Jackson’s pedophilia - and subsequent legal suits - were not public until a year or so after the year in which the musical is set..
Nottage’s expedient villain is Michael’s father, Joe Jackson, who abusively dominated his family, with Michael as target. He’s a convenient villain too - he’s dead. Jackson’s mother survives: she’s saintly, consoling her son (in a rousing Gospel rendition of “I’ll Be There”) even while witnessing the father’s abuse. Nottage’s relentless theme: Michael’s genius not only survives but rises above the hateful father.
Enough said about Nottage’s book. Besides phenomenal casting, “MJ”'s orchestrational, choreographic and technical elements are non-pareil to contemporary musicals, leaving in the dust a string of recent jukebox, bio-musicals like “The Cher Show” and “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical”. Even the exceptional “Tina” is a distant second.
Director Wheeldon (ballet-trained choreographer, who directed “An American In Paris”)takes the tour rehearsal venue as a vehicle for Jackon (brilliantly played by Myles Frost, a self-trained actor/singer/dancer/ musician from Washington DC recruited after appearances on television’s talent show “The Voice”) to travel back and forth to milestones in Jackson’s career. Wheeldon’s deftness at seamlessly shifting from, say, Michael as a young boy with his older brothers in The Jackson 5 to his transformation as pop-idol is nothing short of amazing. Jackson is played by three actors: two child actors alternate playing him as Little Michael (in the performance I saw it was an amazing Christian Wilson); teenage Michael when he breaks from the family and becomes a solo artist (Devin Trey Campbell); and the Michael affixed in pop-culture firmament (Myles Frost.) Frost’s portrayal of Jackson, by stature, movement, dance, and vocal interpretation is jaw-dropping.
Thirty-seven (yes, 37) musical numbers jam-pack the show, each perfectly orchestrated by Jason Michael Web (most recently the revival of “The Color Purple”) and David Holcenberg (“Matilda” et al) to the pop-sound of the time from bubble-gum rock of “ABC”, to the R&B Soul Train days of “Dancing Machine”, to the disco heyday of “Don’t Stop “Til You Get Enough” to Jackson’s video piece-de-resistance “Thriller’. It was Jackson who broke the race-barrier on MTV.
As Jackson’s production goals for the Dangerous tour become more costly and pressures on him mount, the ultimate staging of the “Thriller” video takes a phantasmagoric turn. Jackson hallucinates that the lead corpse chasing him is his father (played by Qeuntin Earl Darrington, who also plays Rob the tour manager). To keep the increasingly expensive tour going, Jackson finally agrees to mortgage his estate, Neverland, the closest Jackson gets to moral choice.
Back to the genius of “MJ”. The dance ensemble has got to be the most muscular ever assembled for a Broadway show. Wheeldon doesn’t just replicate choreography associated with Jackson brother’s routines or Michael's solo performances and videos. The most original number comes when Wheeldon crafts a dance sequence which shows how Michael adapted dance moves from Fred Astaire, the Isley Brothers, and Bob Fosse, the Fosse part being the most inspired choreography of the show. (if you want to see how literally Jackson borrowed directly from Fosse watch Fosse’s dance routine as the snake in the desert in the 1974 fim version of “The Little Prince”.)
Technically, “MJ” never ceases to astound, from costumes by Paula Tazewll (Tony winner for “Hamilton”) to scene changes against the backdrop of rehearsal studio by production designer Derk McLane (recent Tony winner for “Moulin Rouge”). But Director Wheeldon saves the show’s staging masterstroke of lighting and sound design until the final scene where Jackson alone stands triumphant in an arena on Dangerous tour. It’s one of those goose-bump theater moments. Two codas cum finales follow in celebration of not only Jackson’s music but also the show his musical catalog begot. The success of “MJ '' is Jackson’s musical performance genius. Just don't be bothered by what’s left out.