How many hundreds of times have critics said “If you liked [name of old show], you’ll love [name of this new show]”? Well, if you loved [fill in the name of any biographical jukebox musical that offered pop hits from the late 20th century], you’ll like MJ.
Fans of Michael Jackson won’t find anything here that they don’t already know. There’s nothing here for them to learn, either. The only surprise will be which number is performed when, for, as has become common in such musicals, the song list does not reflect the order in which the numbers are performed; instead, they are arranged alphabetically.
Such musicals are almost entirely judged by how close an imitator – or in this case, imitators – resemble The Real Thing; here MJ is two-thirds successful. Christian Wilson, one of two performers who alternates as Little Michael, is as sensational and lovable as MJ was in his formative years.
On the other hand, although Tavon Olds-Sample as Teenage Michael moves extraordinarily well, he doesn’t have much appeal. How lamentable that he makes his face look sour and angry almost every moment he’s on stage.
The bulk of the show, however, belongs to Myles Frost as Adult (?) Michael, which is all to the good (nay, great). In addition to capturing Jackson’s ethereal nature, he offers the slumped shoulders that support a head that tilts forward at a 45-degree angle (not unlike a giraffe’s) as well as lowered eyelids on an inscrutable face and mouth that emits that semi-falsetto whisper between shy smiles.
Talk about Jackson’s plastic surgery on his nose would have been best omitted, given that Frost’s proboscis (understandably) never shrinks an iota during the performance.
Director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon delivers a good-enough production. Most of the songs are done as performance numbers, so Wheeldon enlisted the help of two one-time Jackson associates. They replicated what MTV audiences saw in the day.
Leo Tolstoy’s belief that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” applies here. Joseph Jackson is saddled with nine kids (eight by his wife) in Gary, Indiana, a woeful town no matter what Winthrop Paroo claims. The elder Jackson figures that by making his five sons a singing quintet he could make some money.
Does he ever. Because the kids get all the glory, however, the father must always remind them that He Made Them What They Are. If they don’t obey, corporal punishment soon follows.
Between songs is the usual type of drama found in shows that detail an entertainer’s career. Here’s the rise to the top, the hubris that accompanies it, the detail that “the pills are becoming a problem” and that stadiums are no longer full and record sales are down.
Add in the “drama” of a finicky numbers-cruncher who keeps warning Michael that with his need for excessively expensive on-stage bells and whistles, he may have to mortgage his beloved Neverland.
Horrors! What a tragedy that would be, if Michael were forced to move from a 38,000 square-foot manse with 12 bedrooms and 21 bathrooms to a place that could be only half that size – or, heaven forfend, even smaller. New Yorkers who reportedly pay an average of $3,237 a month for a studio may not have much sympathy for this fate.
So MJ is fortunate to be presented in an era when tourists drive Broadway. But will MJ even be their show of choice? Many in chat rooms are unequivocally telling you, they are not going. They’ve been put off by what they’ve since inferred or gleaned about Michael Jackson from tabloid reports or all four hours of the LEAVING NEVERLAND, the recent damning documentary. In the 16 years since Jackson was found not guilty of pedophile charges, some who had accepted the verdict back then have since come to question it.
Four years and twelve days after that exoneration, Michael Jackson was found dead. So bookwriter Lynn Nottage concentrated on Jackson in 1992, before any of the thorny issues came to light and long before his demise.
Nottage does admit that even at that point, while Jackson was preparing “The Dangerous Tour,” he’d received “a lot of flak from the media.” She doesn’t specifically tell us it was; perhaps she hoped that we’d use our imaginations and accordingly make up our minds.
If you don’t have sympathy for Jackson, you might spare some for Nottage. Sure, she wanted the big paycheck that musicals deliver – monies that her two Pulitzer Prize-winners haven’t (any more than her 11 off-Broadway plays have). But the credits state that MJ comes to us “by special arrangement with the estate of Michael Jackson.” That notation is in typeface half the size of the more than two dozen producers above the title. Yet we can assume that the estate had an opinion or two (or two hundred) of what could and could not be said, no matter what the producers might have wanted to show.
So any information on what did or did not occur in Neverland will never land here. Had Nottage been given a free hand, she may well have tackled the thorny issues and legal battles that Jackson eventually encountered.
Still, Nottage should have seen that she risked getting an inadvertent laugh when an associate tells Michael that “We need a baby sitter.” Similarly speaking, when Jackson lackeys deny him, she has him tell these nay-sayers “‘Yes’ is my favorite word in the dictionary.” That makes us wonder if it was his favorite word to hear in other situations, too. However, do give credit to both Nottage (and Frost) for making Jackson seem sincere when he expresses his altruism in establishing and maintaining his foundation.
Even if Nottage couldn’t take us into any of Jackson’s dozen bedrooms, she could have given us more drama. How did The Jackson 5 feel when Michael abandoned them and made them The Jackson 4? There had to be some jealousy at least from one brother and, far more likely, all of them. Nottage doesn’t even give us the scene where Michael tells his brothers that he wants to strike out on his own. Suddenly he’s shown doing just that.
Quentin Earl Darrington plays both Joe Jackson and Rob, the tour’s director. Did Nottage want to show that Jackson, under his daddy’s thumbs and other eight fingers, eventually saw Rob as a surrogate father with whom he could finally enjoy arguing and defeating? Chances are the production simply wanted to save a salary.
It certainly saved three by not including any of Jackson’s sisters. His mother Katherine (sincerely played by Ayana George) appears after her husband beats Little Michael. She takes the tyke in her arms and sings “I’ll Be There” to him.
The problem is that she rarely is there for the rest of the show.
The only other woman of note is Rachel, who’s at rehearsals for the “Dangerous Tour” to film a documentary. Although she must say to Michael “We want to know what drives you creatively” rather than “We want to know if you’re not just The King of Pop but also The King of Pedophiles,” she’s the show’s best written character. Rachel knows what makes good cinema verite and how to get what she wants, even when she’s up against it. One reason that Nottage has done so well by this character may be the result of all the interviews and interviewers that she has undoubtedly experienced. (Whitney Bashor is excellent in the role.)
Jackson’s tells Rachel “Keep this about my music” and Lord knows that MJ does. The three dozen songs will undoubtedly please those who want to take a moonwalk down Memory Lane, especially when Wilson and Frost are on stage. Many times the audience burst into applause before a number was reaching its conclusion.
MJ can dazzle us with song and dance, but gliding through Jackson’s life is similar enough to Judy Garland’s to cause the same type of melancholy. Every time we revisit this lovely child giving a phenomenal performance in THE WIZARD OF OZ, we’re all the while aware that she devolved into a very sad case. Whatever we think of THE WIZ movie, the youthful Jackson was marvelous in it – and look what happened to him.
And just as Garland became a sky-high maintenance creature (as was beautifully captured in the 2012 play END OF THE RAINBOW), so too did Michael Jackson turn into an equally sharp pain in the gluteus maximus. Time and time and yet time again, Jackson abruptly stops a rehearsal to chide everyone for not being perfect. We’re supposed to like him for being a perfectionist, but given how crazy he seems, we can’t really trust that his perception of perfection is accurate.
If the real Michael Jackson felt that perfection was all-important, he undoubtedly wouldn’t have liked MJ.