'MJ' Review: Michael Jackson Musical Won't Look In The Mirror

“There are a lot of weird stories going around,” says a documentary filmmaker interviewing Michael Jackson. Underestimate a lot? Micha...


“There are a lot of weird stories going around,” says a documentary filmmaker interviewing Michael Jackson.

Underestimate a lot?

Michael Jackson was such a magnet for weird stories that they nearly wiped out his gift. Yet by defensively dismissing those who don’t matter while ostentatiously ignoring those who do, the new musical “MJ”, which opened at the Neil Simon Theater on Tuesday, is perhaps the strangest Michael Jackson story to date.

Not all weirdness is bad, of course, and within the confines of the biographical jukebox genre, “MJ,” with a book by Lynn Nottage, is actually pretty good — for a while. Directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, whose ballet training found a natural outlet in dance musicals like “An American in Paris», the show starts with confidence and verve in a natural setting: the rehearsal room. There, Jackson, along with his dancers, backup singers and band, is in the final stages of preparing for his 1992 Dangerous Tour, a 15-month marathon across four continents.

This framing means our first look at the musical version of Jackson is like a man at work, without the distraction of Bubbles the chimpanzeethe Elephant Man Bonesthe hyperbaric chamberthe skin discolorationthe disappearing nose – Where the pedophilia accusations that would begin to emerge a year laterfirst in tabloids, then in lawsuits and finally in police investigations.

As such, we get the joy of discovery, both of Jackson before the fall and of Myles Frost, a real find in the role. Singing “Beat It” as he enters, Frost not only offers a slender simulacrum of the star in perfect copies (by designer Paul Tazewell) of his classic insignia – black jacket, gold brocade, tilted fedora, white crinkle-up socks. ankles – but a strange mimicry of his mannerisms. The breathy voice; looking head down, eyes up; the interjector yells and yelps: Frost has chilled them.

Maybe too cold. In the absence of any deeper revelation of the singer’s character, Frost’s performance of the songs – which include MTV-era charts like “Bad”, “Billie Jean”, “Man in the Mirror” and ” Thriller” as well as less familiar numbers – soon begins to seem animatronic, as if created by Disney imaginers. It doesn’t help that there are so many; 37 titles are listed in the program, some excerpts from barely a verse.

But Wheeldon’s choreography – performed by Frost with an insanely awesome set – stays compelling for longer, delivering a three-dimensional version of what most of us have only seen from distant arena seats or in dark videos on screens without depth. (The show’s “Michael Jackson move” is credited to two additional choreographers, Rich + Tone Talauega.) The scenic motifs are far more varied and expressive than in similar musicals, scoring without words as they deliver thrills. strong and, following the map biomusical road, open the way between the present and the past.

Take the sequence in which the Jackson 5 make a standout appearance singing “ABC” at an amateur night out at the Apollo Theater in 1969. Wheeldon whirls the giddy brothers from stage to party stage in their bedroom. hotel, at least until their perfectionist father. (Quentin Earl Darrington) demands, with the warmth of a cult leader, that despite their exhaustion, they rehearse late into the night. When preteen Michael (Christian Wilson during the performance I saw) stands up to him and gets slapped so hard he falls to the ground, his mother (Ayana George) comforts him by singing “I’ll Be There” while he goes to bed.

What Katherine Jackson’s responsibility might have been, besides providing a lullaby, is not considered; She is still alive. In any case, after all that, Wheeldon takes us back to the rehearsal room of 1992 with a sharp gesture: the dancers pull back the sheets to reveal the bed like a pile of tour trunks.

Jackson’s childhood was undoubtedly difficult. Although Nottage uses cliches from the jukebox playbook to dramatize this story – including an interviewer to spark reminiscences (Whitney Bashor) and three actors to cast the role at different ages (Tavon Olds-Sample is delightful as than teen Michael) – she does it so crispy and in a format that makes it look almost natural. Having the members of the 1992 entourage play all the supporting roles in the flashback scenes is both effective and compelling.

But the story is mostly humorless, a problem that isn’t mitigated by Jackson’s occasional mischievous antics (he fires a water gun at his business manager) or constant underscore of emotional argument. (“You sang that song like you lived in sorrow your whole life,” Berry Gordy tells preteen Michael after performing “I Want You Back.”) As the joys of the early scenes begin to fade, “ MJ” is content to shamelessly provide, in the relatively small space devoted to words, an avalanche of astonishing and painful facts.

This is why the absence of the greatest is so shocking.

In agreeing to write what is essentially an authorized biography – the series was produced “by special arrangement with the estate of Michael Jackson” – Nottage apparently made a compromise: she noted down her minor quirks while avoiding the more troubling accusations. against him. Even so, there are simple explanations for every peccadillo, from plastic surgeries (“It’s Hollywood,” Jackson says. “Who hasn’t had a new nose?”) to the hyperbaric chamber (“I kicked this rumor. I thought it would be funny”). His father’s nastiness is also justified: “My hand is not as heavy as the world will be on your black ass if you step out of line,” he says.

In this, “MJ” tries to win on both counts. He wants to blame others for everything sad and weird about Jackson (especially the press, which is likened to the zombies in “Thriller”), but credit him alone for every good deed and success. The recognition of the choreographers and songwriters with whom he has collaborated is mainly reserved for the program.

This defensive attitude, constantly asserting his genius as if it were in question, ends up being moved, like any act of bad faith. And as the show, anticipating its star’s trajectory, crumbles in the second half, the fun that made up for its inherent disgust can no longer do the job. “MJ” becomes an obfuscation grind, a case of deliberately refusing to look at the man in the mirror.

Would it have been possible to do this musical differently? Could you successfully market as a Broadway family extravaganza a show whose main character, despite never being convicted of a crime, settle two sexual abuse cases out of court and dies before two others are fired because the limitation period has expired?

Unlikely – and perhaps you could say that Broadway is by no means the place to ask such questions. Musicals based on real people have always elided their worst traits. Even that fascist facilitator Eva Perón was sugar coated and sanctified. Of course, his estate had no “special arrangement” with the producers of “Evita”.

Ultimately, the problem with “MJ” isn’t its ethical stance but how that stance distorts its value as entertainment. Even the combined power of Jackson’s material and Wheeldon’s resuscitation cannot compensate for the void at its center; we cannot understand or accept the main character if he is deliberately hidden from us.

A line from “Man in the Mirror” also applies here: “If you want to make the world a better place, look at yourself and make a change.” What “MJ” needed was either a lot more time before he dared to mount it – or a different, deeper, more thoughtful main character.

GM
At the Neil Simon Theater, Manhattan; mjthemusical.com. Duration: 2h30.

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Newsrust - US Top News: 'MJ' Review: Michael Jackson Musical Won't Look In The Mirror
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