Broadway review by Adam Feldman
The authorized biomusical MJ wants very much to freeze Michael Jackson in 1992: It’s a King of Pop-sical. The show begins on a note of truculent evasion. Jackson, played by the gifted Broadway newcomer Myles Frost, is in rehearsal for his Dangerous tour—a year before the superstar was first publicly accused of sexually abusing a minor—and the number they run is “Beat It,” a song about the importance of avoiding conflict. “Showin’ how funky strong is your fight,” sings Michael, prefiguring the musical’s approach to his life. “It doesn’t matter who’s wrong or right.”
When the song is done, Michael speaks with an MTV reporter (Whitney Bashor) who has landed a rare interview with him. “With respect, I wanna keep this about my music,” he says. “Is it really possible to separate your life from your music?” she asks, preempting a question on many minds, and his reply is a slice of “Tabloid Junkie”: “Just because you read it in a magazine / Or see it on a TV screen, don’t make it factual.” And that, more or less, is that. Expertly directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, MJ does about as well as possible within its careful brief. In and of itself, it is a deftly crafted jukebox nostalgia trip. Lynn Nottage’s script weaves together three dozen songs, mostly from the Jackson catalog. The music and the dancing are sensational. And isn’t that, the show suggests, really the point in the end? Doesn’t that beat all?
MJ is manifestly aimed at people who either believe in Jackson’s innocence or who are able and willing to enjoy his work despite questions about his guilt. (He was acquitted of some accusations in court, but others have followed.) There are many such people, and the production serves them handsomely. The design is deluxe: dazzling period costumes by Paul Tazewell, a smooth set by Derek McLane, flashy lighting by Natasha Katz, vivid arrangements by Jason Michael Webb and David Holcenberg. On the night I saw the show, the crowd responded with huge applause.
The dancers and singers of the ensemble, who double as secondary characters, are first-rate, and Wheeldon gives them a lot to do. Most of the songs are performed as rehearsals or flashbacks, which is to say as full-on production numbers. (Tracks from Jackson’s 1995 album HIStory are cannily placed by Nottage as character moments.) Like Summer and The Cher Show before it, MJ uses three actors to play its central character at different ages. As the 1992 incarnation, Frost carries the bulk of the role, and not only nails Jackson’s signature sound and moves—yes, of course there’s a moonwalk—but also his otherworldly affect: his diffident grandiosity, his mixture of grievance and mischief, his high and breathy way of talking (at once floaty and determined, like Diana Ross’s spoken-word section of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”). Walter Russell III and Christian Wilson alternate as the charming child Michael, who rose to fame with his brothers in the Jackson 5; the ebullient Tavon Olds-Sample shines as the Michael of the later 70s and early 80s.
MJ | Photograph: Courtesy Matthew Murphy
The real Jackson was an unconventional person, to say the least, with a public persona that blurred many of the usual binaries: black and white, male and female, gay and straight, young and old, pop and rock. MJ doesn’t delve into such questions, but takes pains to foreground his artistry. The show depicts Jackson as a perfectionist genius of music and performance, mindful of his influences—including James Brown and, as one standout dance number illustrates, the Nicholas Brothers, Bob Fosse and Fred Astaire—and rigorous in his pursuit of the perfect funky jam that he calls “the smelly jelly.” (“Keith, you keep stepping all over my vocals.” “What if we bring in the guitar right here?” “Can you give the hi hat a little more love?”)
By setting the musical in 1992, MJ sidesteps the need to have Jackson address the abuse issue even as it touches sympathetically on other personal problems: the lingering shadow of his abusive and hard-driving father, Joseph (an imposing Quentin Earl Darrington), the pressure of worldwide fame, a burgeoning painkiller addiction. Even there, however, one senses the influence and image-rehabilitation agenda of the Jackson Estate. (Two of the show’s three lead producers are its executors.) A thumb on the scale is felt, for example, when Jackson complains about his treatment by the press—“The constant noise. The media. The lies”—and defiantly sings an Act One finale of “They Don’t Care About Us” that has been scrubbed of its original anti-Semitic lyrics. His traumatic family history also seems sanitized; Joseph’s hardscrabble good intentions are emphasized, and after he hits his young son, Michael’s mother Katherine (Ayana George) explains that “It may not feel like love now, but it is,” then sings a gloriously ornamented version of “I’ll Be There.”
Toward the end of MJ, If you look closely, there are signs of what might be interpreted as foreshadows of the times to come. “I can give people what they want, but when I step off stage, it, um, gets complicated,” Michael admits. “And do you think people really wanna see my life? There’s been some dark struggles...Things I can’t…” There he drifts off, to finish singing “Human Nature” and move on to “Bad.” A climactic dark-carnival staging of “Thriller” follows, which is ostensibly about Jackson’s fear of his controlling father but also involves demon versions of himself. “Listen to my music,” says Michael to his interviewer. “It answers any questions you might have.” Does it? I left the theater entertained, but not convinced I had really seen the man in the smoke and mirrors.
MJ. Neil Simon Theatre (Broadway). Book by Lynn Nottage. Music and lyrics by various artists. Directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. With Myles Frost, Quentin Earl Darrington, Tavon Olds-Sample, Ayana George, Whitney Bashor, Gabriel Ruiz, Antoine L. Smith, Walter Russell III, Christian Wilson. Running time: 2hrs 25mins. One intermission.
MJ | Photograph: Courtesy Matthew Murphy