In developing “MJ” the musical, the creators have set themselves a tremendous, some might say overwhelming, task. How is it possible to tell the life story of “King of Pop” Michael Jackson to entertain a Broadway audience when it’s a story that was lived out on the public stage for decades, particularly that story has elements that are darkly tragic?
How do you give an audience what it wants, which in this case is to re-experience the singer’s artistry and, yes, genius? Choices have to be made, so skimming over the darker aspects of the story just makes sense when the idea is to put on a great big Broadway show. Or, as the character Dimitri Weismann so aptly puts it in “Follies,” it is “a chance to glamorize the old days, stumble through a song or two…and lie about ourselves.”
The lies, if one can call them that, are lies of omission, and what’s on the stage at the Neil Simon Theatre is a lot more than stumbling. In fact, it has moments of brilliance, and if an audience can’t quite forget the end of the story, that’s not what this is about. The premise of the show is that Jackson is preparing to leave for his “Dangerous” tour in 1992, and it’s the last day of rehearsal before hitting the road. Through this, we see Jackson as the child/man that’s often been his image. We also see his understanding of show biz, what an audience wants, and the drive for perfection. Through a series of flashbacks, we get his history from the lead of the Jackson 5 to solo performer and international superstar. Playwright Lynn Nottage, who wrote the book, does a good job of weaving in a lot of events, never losing focus on the journey of the artist, if not the man. The trope that the rehearsal is being shot for a documentary for MTV (which actually happened with the tour, but not the rehearsals) allows for the flashbacks. From a dramatic standpoint, the secondary characters are largely two dimensional, but that’s an endemic problem with the jukebox musical form. If you’re going to put some 37 familiar numbers in a show, even in abbreviated form, there’s not much room for much more. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. If “MJ” does anything, it reminds us in an explosion of showbiz that before the series of allegations and tragedies that clouded Jackson’s later life and biography, he was a passionate artist and a quintessential showman, as a section tracing his lineage from the Nicholas brothers through Fred Astaire and the growth of a true artist.
This outsized and exuberant entertainment works because of the excellent work of director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. The show is at its strongest when reproducing Jackson’s numbers. It was no surprise, then, that at the performance I saw, that’s when the audience came most alive, responding as if they were at a real Michael Jackson concert. That is what they came for, and that’s what the show delivered. Particularly in the performance of Myles Frost as Jackson, there is the precision and commitment to the music and the movement that made the original’s performances so exhilarating. Frost conveys the sense that the performance is always on the edge, and even Jackson’s iconic moves reproduced here feel fresh, risky, and exciting.
The playlist includes many Jackson hits, including “Billie Jean,” “Bad,” “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough,” “Black or White,” “Man in the Mirror,” and even the haunting “Stranger in Moscow.” It never occurred to me that “Thriller,” one Jackson’s biggest hits, was an Oedipal catharsis…but we can go with that, and they are almost all smoothly integrated into the narrative.
In addition to Frost, the cast is uniformly outstanding. Christian Wilson, who played Little Michael at the performance I saw, is extraordinarily gifted in voice and movement. Tayvon Olds-Sample, who plays teenage and young adult Michael, is equally exceptional. Second only to Frost, though, is Quentin Earl Darington, who plays both Michael’s father Joseph and his present-day manager, Rob. It’s a performance that balances heart and darkness, presenting two of the most important adult men in Jackson’s life.
Paul Tazewell has reproduced many of Jackson’s most memorable outfits. As with the musical “Diana,” the clothes are as much a part of the story as the person. Derek McLane’s versatile rehearsal studio set is striking, though he seems to have borrowed from his designs for “Moulin Rouge” for the “Thriller” sequence.
In our celebrity- and scandal-drenched culture, it’s sometimes all too easy to confuse the artist with the art. Michael Jackson broke barriers, pushed the limits of pop music, ushered in the MTV era, and delighted millions of fans. That doesn’t negate the other parts of the story, but that’s not what this show is about. “MJ” is not revisionist history but a reminder of the power of art to change the world. And it’s a lot of fun.
MJ | Neil Simon Theatre | 250 West 52nd Street | Tues., Thurs. 7 p.m.; Weds., Fri., Sat. 8 p.m.; Weds., Sat. 2 p.m.; Sun. 3 p.m. | $129-$179 | Ticketmaster.com | 2 hours, 20 mins, 1 intermission