Cleverly conceived and thrillingly performed, knockout bio-musical MJ the Musical is this year’s white hot ticket.
Set in a rehearsal room for the 1992 Dangerous World Tour, Michael Jackson’s story unfolds organically through memories stirred by an MTV interviewer. Dancers, managers, and back up singers (and their children) fill the flashback roles using the tour’s props and costumes. Playwright Lynn Nottage sidesteps the potential dreary linear bio-musical traps with this snappy approach, replacing the usual tedium with a vivid sense of excitement.
The recollections move through the Jackson Five to teenage Michael to world-conquering king of pop Michael Jackson. While the show includes money troubles, pill-taking and relentless perfectionism, the 1992 conclusion means that later allegations against Jackson are not covered. This lack of deeper examination is frustrating, but if the show is accepted for what it is, the result is exceedingly entertaining in its own right.
Once firmly ensconced in the world of ballet, director / choreographer Christopher Wheeldon moves on from his delightful production of An American in Paris with an even more extraordinary vision for MJ the Musical. Collaborating with scenic designer Derek McLane and lighting designer Natasha Katz, the cinematic fluidity achieved is incredible and the dancing is nothing short of astonishing.
Highlights include the conjuring of Studio 54 for “Wanna Be Starting Something,” and the stunning shattered crystal visuals for “They Don’t Care About Us.” Wheeldon hits his strides at the top of act two, following “Billie Jean” with an ode to MJ’s favourite dancers Fred Astaire, Bob Fosse and the Nicholas Brothers. The subsequent neon cityscape for “Smooth Criminal” spectacularly completes this electric sequence. Iconic hit “Thriller,” as staged in the Dangerous World Tour production itself, is another clear highlight.
Mention must be made of music director Jason Michael Webb and music supervisor David Holcenberg, both of whom contributed the sensational orchestrations and arrangements.
While a significant part of the frenzied audience response relates to the recreation of Jackson’s incredible catalogue of hits, the lead performance of Myles Frost is an integral aspect of bringing this world to life. Effectively capturing Jackson’s gently soft spoken manner, Frost sings up a storm and is an incredibly lithe and fluid dancer.
Tavon Olds-Sample is a standout as teenage Michael, looking uncannily like the star and performing key hits with great flair. At this performance, Young Michael was played by Christian Wilson, who played alongside his adult counterparts with terrific, and well-placed, confidence.
A key feature of having tour company members play other roles is the combination of tour director Rob and Michael’s father Joseph Jackson. The swift transitions between these two characters clearly telegraphs Michael’s reaction to authority figures after enduring near-abusive pressure from his father while performing as a young boy. At this performance, Antoine L. Smith brought out the commanding strength of Joseph tempered with the humanistic warmth of Rob.
Theatregoers scarred by the memories of sitting through Thriller Live should take comfort in the vastly superior concept, performances, production values, and sheer creativity of MJ the Musical.
MJ the Musical plays at Neil Simon Theatre, New York.
Photos: Matthew Murphy