By: Samuel L. Leiter
February 4, 2022: As a note in the Playbill for MJ—the lively if less than sensational new Broadway juke box musical about Michael Jackson—reminds us, the “King of Pop” was one of the most spectacularly successful entertainers in show biz history. He earned countless accolades, awards, and admiration worldwide before his untimely death at fifty in 2009. No other single entertainer has accumulated so many honors, sold so many records, or earned so much money. Even his Wikipedia entry probably breaks a record for its length.
The note also reminds us of his humanitarian side, but skips any mention of the mountain of controversies and eccentricities he was almost equally known for, like the accusations of pedophilia that plagued him and his estate. Questions about his sexuality never arise in MJ, nor does one learn anything about the brouhahas surrounding his two marriages, or his offspring. This is largely because the show is set in 1992, before the most scandalous scandals metastasized.
By placing the action in a Los Angeles rehearsal studio in 1992, during the preparations for Jackson’s “Dangerous” tour, book writer Lynn Nottage—presently the town’s sizzlingest playwright—avoids these uncomfortable issues, but doesn’t entirely ignore MJ’s proclivities, most a combination of rumor and fact, such as his plastic surgeries, his skin color, his sleeping in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, and his addiction to painkillers.
Faced with squishing in as many familiar bullet points as she can from Jackson’s eventful life, even at thirty-five, Nottage dispenses with many by crafting the show in an all-too familiar framework. She has an MTV journalist named Rachel (Whitney Bashor, blonde, pretty, and vibrant) and her grungy, star-idolizing cameraman, Alejandro (Gabriel Ruiz, blandly amusing) present to make a documentary about Jackson’s “process.”
Reluctant to be interviewed after a fourteen-year hiatus, he eventually agrees, so long as Rachel focuses on the music; she, though, harbors other ideas, wondering how Jackson can separate his life from his art. Rachel brings out some touchy subjects, of course, and later, when other media members converge for a press conference, it allows reporters to shout questions about the better-known gossip. Even if these are not addressed, or are quickly brushed away, they at least avoid a total whitewash.
The overall impression, though, is that Jackson was a saintly figure, a misunderstood, obsessive perfectionist (something he obviously got from his demanding father), whose peculiarities were exaggerated by the media. This impression is emphasized by his angelic presence of emotional restraint under pressure heightened by a high-pitched, breathy, childlike speaking voice.
Jackson is fortunate to be played by newcomer Myles Frost, a remarkable Jackson avatar. Although he has barely any facial resemblance to Jackson, he’s otherwise so physically like him that you can usually—although never entirely—imagine the “King of Pop” to be up there in his above-the-ankle black slacks separated from black shoes by white socks; silky, billowing shirts; cool fedoras; wispy pony tail, and other familiar accouterments, including the showy braided or sequined jackets and “the glove.”
Frost, as streamlined as the original, captures the unique Jackson singing voice. He also perfectly embodies the angular, joint-popping, neck-bopping, pelvis-pumping, crotch-grabbing, feet-sliding, almost non-human, robotic, moonwalking dancing style Jackson perfected. Because the show covers his life from childhood up, the role is divided into three parts, beginning with the preternaturally talented grade-school Little Michael (the outstanding Christian Wilson at the show I saw), followed by the darker-skinned teenage Jackson (Tavon Olds-Sample, also notable), and finally the mid-thirties MJ of 1992.
Much as a show about Michael Jackson can’t avoid providing lots of biodata to create a dramatic context into which his music can be set—otherwise, why not simply do a tribute concert?—so much is crammed into the interstices between the many production numbers that they become almost boring distractions, making the two and a half hour show seem even longer.
Flashing back, we get a rapid introduction to the arc of Jackson’s career, beginning with his brothers in a group best remembered as the Jackson Five, started by his aggressively ambitious, debatably abusive father, Joseph (a dynamic Earl Darrington). Highlights along the way include an appearance on “Soul Train” and the “Victory” tour of 1984.
After the group achieves success, Jackson goes solo, eventually finding himself preparing the “Dangerous” tour and having to insist on achieving his vision in the face of obstacles presented by his producer, Rob (also Darrington), and his business manager, Dave (Joey Sorge). His decision on whether he’ll mortgage his enormous Neverland estate provides one of the few proto-dramatic ingredients.
The situations and characters (including Motown genius Berry Gordy, played by Antoine L. Smith) fly by, Nottage’s dialogue often morphing into songs with lyrics that support some dramatic theme, regardless of when they were written. Versatile members shift from one role to the other, often, but not always, with costume and wig changes, many of them also serving in the super-energetic dance ensemble. The characters are never more than outlines, however, stick figures in a living diorama meant only to stand as signposts along Jackson’s journey.
Director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon (An American in Paris) keeps the complex premise moving with greased lightning, while his dances have all the well-known moves and flash we think of when we recall the path-breaking videos of Jackson’s heyday.
Derek McLane’s set of soaring windows looking down on the large rehearsal room allows for eye-popping projections by Peter Nigrini, supplemented by the dazzling lighting of Natasha Katz. Paul Tazewell does due diligence with his multiple costumes, many as funky as the music they reflect.
Thirty-seven songs (not all Jackson’s) are listed, some getting only a few bars, but most receiving the full treatment, like a blazing “I’ll Be There,” sung mainly by Michael’s mother, Katherine (Ayana George), with Little Michael, and such iconic tunes as “Bad,” “Beat It,” “Billie Jean,” “Black or White,” “Man in the Mirror,” and “Thriller.” I’ve never been a rabid Jacksonian so, unlike many around me at the Neil Simon Theatre, who shouted and raised their hands when the music of songs I never heard before began. Regardless, there were more than enough classics here even for generation-gap slackers like me.
Unfortunately, unless you know the lyrics already, the persistently thumping percussion in some numbers makes it nearly impossible to hear the words clearly. And the barrage of heavily rhythmic songs, accompanied by the onslaught of Jackson-style movement, tends to blend together and teeter on tiresomeness. Maybe it’s my age, but I was looking at my watch after the two-hour mark.
Still, my plus-one, in her upper fifties, was totally into it, loving every minute. The audience, which seemed to fill about ninety percent of the seats at a rainy Thursday (oddly) matinee, was completely engaged. Following the climactic ending—a spectacular one—when the audience rises for the predictable standing ovation, the company adds a mini-concert of several favorites missing from what came earlier. Even if you hate standing o’s you’ll rise to revel in the moment.
Neil Simon Theatre
250 W. 52nd Street, NYC
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Photography: Mathew Murphy
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