After several postponements in both Chicago and New York, MJ the Musical has finally arrived with a jolt of throbbing energy at the Neil Simon Theatre. It’s an evening of extraordinary performances and stunning choreography, as much a live concert of Michael Jackson’s greatest hits as a biographical or jukebox musical. Skirting controversy and prurience, it seeks to solidify Michael Jackson’s musical legacy, but raises the question for audiences of whether we can separate the art from the artist.
The narrative is based around rehearsals for Jackson’s epic Dangerous World Tour in 1992. We join Jackson, his band, and his dancers in a rehearsal studio in Los Angeles. As the tour troupe works on details of their performance, the musical numbers spur flashbacks to Jackson’s past. A documentary crew from MTV tries to capture Jackson’s creative process and hope to uncover a salacious scoop in the process. This device helps Lynn Nottage raise the bar with her tight book that, while acknowledging the obvious landmarks in Jackson’s career, also treats the origin story with some nuance.
Key to the impact and power of the show is the mesmerizing presence of Myles Frost as MJ, the adult Michael Jackson (the show splits the role into three: the child Little Michael, the adolescent Michael, and MJ). The lithe actor not only bears an uncanny resemblance to the real Jackson but might be an even better dancer–he has perfected the moonwalk and other trademark moves. Frost owns the show and when he is not center of the action, you are longing for his return. It is a grueling performance that must require deep reserves of stamina.
Other stand outs are Christian Wilson, one of two actors to play Little Michael, and Quentin Earl Darrington, who plays a double role as Rob, the manager of the tour, and Joseph Jackson, Michael’s overbearing and exploitative father. In this telling, Joseph is the source of most of Jackson’s subsequent personal demons. Tavon Olds-Sample plays the teenage and young adult version of Michael with an impressive range and energy. Ayana George, as both a backup singer and Michael’s mother, Katherine, brings some much-needed female vocal power to several numbers including a touching rendition of “I’ll Be There” with Frost. Her career to date as a backing singer for A list artists seems destined to change.
The supporting ensemble cast is an extraordinary group of dancers. Director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon draws on insights from Rich and Tone Talauega, who worked with Jackson on many of his famous steps, as well as other dancers who influenced Jackson, including Bob Fosse, Fred Astaire, and the Nicholas Brothers.
Produced as it is “by special arrangement with the Estate of Michael Jackson,” this show was bound to paint a positive picture of the artist and it clearly intends to position Jackson as a creative if somewhat conflicted genius. At one point he asserts, “The songs are the real stars not the singer.” There are momentary acknowledgments of rumors of skin lightening and other “recent allegations” but the edgiest the show gets about Jackson’s personal life is a montage of news headlines on the scenic element of a shattered mirror scenic as paparazzi hound the star. The set by Derek McLane, of Moulin Rouge fame, includes a stunning circus scene as the backdrop for a climactic rendition of “Thriller,” and Peter Nigrini’s projections are integral to capturing the different eras, including some fab ‘70s graphics to accompany the Jackson 5’s early fame. (One quibble with the direction is the blocking of the MTV cameraman – who would have consistently missed every shot had he tried to film from the positions he takes on stage.)
The show makes the deliberate choice to end as the Dangerous World Tour, the apogee of Jackson’s artistic career, begins. In the ensuing years, the worst of the allegations about the nature of Jackson’s involvement with a number of children came to dominate the public’s interest, followed by the questions surrounding his untimely death. MJ the Musical provides an untarnished portrait of one of the most talented composers and recording artists of the modern era–Michael Jackson as both musical and performance superstar. It remains to be seen whether audiences will overlook the less salubrious aspects of his life to ensure the show’s success at securing Jackson’s enduring musical reputation.