[This is another abbreviated write-up. More on write-ups going forward, as well as a year or more of theatre in review, later this week. Who remembers the line-eater bug these days?]
Last night, we saw “MJ: The Musical” at Broadway in Hollywood/Hollywood Pantages last night. A few observations about the show:
Start by letting this sink into your head: Michael Jackson’s music is oldies music. Remember a few weeks ago I commented, after a visit to a Bob’s Big Boy in Northridge, how their playing music from the 1950s felt off; it was like when I was growing up in the 1970s they were playing music from 1915. The 1950s was oldies music during the 1980s and 1990s. Grease (the movie) came out in 1978. So for kids in the 2020s, music from the early 90s is just about as old. Hence: Michael Jackson is oldies; it is classic pop of today. Watch minds explode.
Going into this show, I was torn. I liked the music of Michael Jackson (although I was never an obsessed fan — I was a different generation). But Michael Jackson has the same problem as Bill Cosby and Woody Allen and so many others: How do you separate the talented artist from the tortured soul who was alleged to (and quite likely did) so many problematic things. Although I have a large collection of Bill Cosby humor albums acquired in the 1960s, I no longer listen to them. I probably won’t until after he dies. I avoid Woody Allen films, as I don’t want to profit the man. Michael Jackson has similar problems, but he is gone. The owners of his music catalog benefit from this show; his children may benefit. A little better, but still a little uncomfortable.
That brings me to the gloved elephant in the room: Does the show address the allegations, or how he died? The answer is that it doesn’t. It’s is set at the time of the start of the Dangerous Tour. There are indications that he’s being hounded by personal questions (that are never stated). There’s brief discussion — but no exploration — of his dependence on pain killers. But that’s about it. I truly debated titling this writeup “Pay no Attention to the Man-Boy Behind The Curtain”, but that would have made the title too long.
So what perception of Jackson comes through? His perfectionism. His dedication to the music and the art. HIs dedication to dance. His putting art above the money, and performance above profit. His desire to do good for others. His shaping through the abuse of his father, Joseph. As for Jackson’s origin story, well that comes through only superficially. We don’t see the conflicts, if they exist, between his brothers. We learn nothing about the relationship of Jackson and his sisters. We learning nothing about the person that was Michael Jackson; we learn only the image he wanted … sold to the public.
This is not to say that the show was bad. But if you go in expecting to learn something significant about Michael Jackson, you’ll be disappointed. This show, much likes Jackson himself, focuses on the image. “Bad” is only a song. There’s flash and sequins and sparkle and (pay no attention to the man behind the curtain) and music and sub-woofers and dance and dance and dance. It’s a Thiller, where the monsters aren’t real.
The performances were spectacular. The dancing was astounding. The music brought back memories.
But the story was focused on Jackson as the artist, with only glimpses of the person underneath the facade.
As this is an abbreviated writeup, I’m not listing the cast and creatives. Special mention should go to Roman Banks MJ , for his nailing of the sound and movement of Michael Jackson, to Ethan Joseph Little Michael for his powerhouse voice, and to Kellie Drobnick Tour Dancer, who for whatever reason just kept catching my eye.
One additional thought: As I watch productions, I think about what additional life they will have. I can see shows like Come From Away being done at the regional, or even the high school level. I can see revivals and reinterpretations. As for MJ? I can’t see this being done at the High School level — they won’t find students who can do this. At the regional level, perhaps only in select levels. But the production design would be hard to duplicate with the intense projections. Further, duplicating this era at the regional or high school level might be hard, especially props and costumes. This tour might be it. I’d be interested in your thoughts about the the future life of this musical.
MJ: The Musical runs until January 28, 2024 at the Pantages Theatre.