If there’s ever been any question that Michael Jackson was one of the greatest singer-dancers that pop music has ever produced, the new biomusical “MJ,” now at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre, simply refutes all doubters. As for those other, more difficult questions about Jackson, the show – which is set during the final rehearsals of Jackson’s groundbreaking 1992 tour for the album “Dangerous” – doesn’t succeed in answering them. There are thrills and there are chills.
Much of the show’s success hinges on the performance of Broadway newcomer Myles Frost, who serves up a pitch-perfect impersonation of Jackson. He slays the ready-to-cheer crowd in song after song, including such megahits as “Bad,” “Beat It” and “Billie Jean,” earning more than one standing ovation. A superb ensemble, Derek McLane’s creative set, Paul Tazewell’s spot-on costumes (which re-create four decades) and Natasha Katz’s lighting also deserve their own bows.
Above all, though, you’ll leave remembering the extraordinary choreography of Christopher Wheeldon (who also directs). Wheeldon puts his ultra-impressive, ultra-fit troupe of dancers through some of the most energetic, complex and precise routines currently on Broadway. Among the show’s highlights are a scene set on the TV show “Soul Train” (where Jackson introduced “The Robot” via the song “Dancing Machine”), Wheeldon’s mesmerizing version of “Smooth Criminal” -- with sections specifically honoring the Nicholas Brothers, Fred Astaire and Bob Fosse – and a late-in-show sequence set to “Man in the Mirror,” which is nothing short of masterful. (And yes, “Thriller” does show up, rather faithfully, but in a shortened form.)
However, although “MJ” has enlisted the great playwright Lynn Nottage to add depth to the work, even she is unable to give us enough new insight into Jackson’s personality. Through the lens of an ambitious MTV interviewer (Whitney Bashor) and her giddy cameraman (Gabriel Ruiz), we see Jackson’s unrelenting perfectionism, his almost careless attitude towards money in pursuit of achieving his goals, and his reliance on pain pills to get through the day – none of which is news to anyone who followed Jackson’s career.
In addition, we bear witness to what appears to be Jackson’s true child-like innocence and seemingly innate goodness -- in an attempt to make us feel Jackson couldn’t have committed child molestation (charges that wouldn’t become public until 1993). It’s a tricky strategy that only pays off, I suspect, for some audience members.
The interview set-up also allows many sections of the show to be told in flashbacks, from the joy of the Jackson Five years (with the adorable Christian Wilson as the pint-sized Michael) to the artistic struggles of the teenaged Michael (an incredibly charismatic Tavon Olds-Sample) And in every time period, we get glimpses of Michael’s frequent clashes with his domineering and often cruel father, Joseph (strongly embodied by Quentin Earl Darrington, who also doubles as kind-but-tough tour director Rob).
Meanwhile, his mom Katherine (played by the excellent Ayana George, who stops the show early on with her rendition of “I’ll Be There) is painted as a woman who was raised to believe that her husband’s unpleasant methods will not only lead to her son’s success, but also prevent him from being an underpaid factory worker like his dad. “It may not feel like love, but it will,” she repeatedly tells Michael. It never does.
So, on some level, “MJ” just wants us to believe that everything Jackson did in his life, good and perhaps bad, was nothing more than the act of a man-child who never felt loved. But more than anything, it wants us to worship the “King of Pop” as the musical royalty he will always be, no matter what.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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