There’s so much to see and absorb while watching MJ, the musical about late pop star Michael Jackson, that theatergoers can’t be blamed for wanting to see this show more than once. The opening of MJ’s national tour rocked Chicago this week, with a sense of anticipation and excitement that literally had the capacity crowd buzzing.
It would be unfair (and incorrect) to lump MJ with other shows belonging to the category of “jukebox musical.” Jackson’s amazing song collection is basically the music of a generation. And under the direction of Christopher Wheeldon (who also contributes choreography), and the fine book by esteemed playwright Lynn Nottage (Intimate Apparel), the tale of Michael Jackson rises to the stratosphere.
The musical takes place in 1992, as Jackson’s Dangerous tour takes shape in Los Angeles. It is set in a nondescript rehearsal room. As we learn is typical of Jackson, he is unhappy with almost everything about the tour: the band, the dancers, the staging and the lack of imagination. He tests the patience of tour manager Rob, who strives to make the necessary changes to please Michael. It is a no-win situation, and one that Rob (an excellent Devin Bowles) realizes early on. As he tries to cajole some sense into Michael (who wants to soar above the audience while wearing a jet pack), he realizes that his efforts are mostly futile. “Compromise” is not a word in Jackson’s vocabulary, at least not at this point in his career.
The musical scenes often ricochet back to the days of the Jackson 5, when a much younger Michael (Josiah Benson in some performances; Ethan Joseph in others) is a small, curly-haired cutie who fears the wrath of Joseph, his demanding father. When Michael complains of being too tired to practice, a swift backhand from Joseph tells him there is no other option. A number of scenes from this period are set in the studio of “Soul Train,” the TV show that catapulted the Jackson 5 to super-stardom.
It’s no surprise that a jaw-dropping spectacle like MJ won four Tony Awards, including Best Actor for Myles Frost and Best Choreography for Christopher Wheeldon. Frost has since left his Tony Award-winning role for other projects, but my impression of watching him on Broadway last fall remains vivid. What I witnessed on the New York stage was a star in the making. Frost was seamless in his impersonation of the “King of Pop.” The audience could only gaze, transfixed, at Frost’s performance.
Banks Is No Second Banana to Myles Frost
In Chicago, those who snag tickets to the MJ national tour can view another rising star: Roman Banks. If anything, Banks looks a bit more like Michael Jackson than Frost did. Like Frost, Banks is a triple threat who sings, dances and acts his way into musical history. He adeptly shifts through every move that the real Michael Jackson perfected (and a few moves that Jackson never had the opportunity to perform). Banks excels at playing the mercurial Jackson, and he is rarely offstage.
Although MJ covers several aspects of Jackson’s life, the musical has been criticized (mainly in the New York press) for omitting some unsavory chapters. It’s probably no coincidence that the show is set in 1992, before Jackson’s well-publicized trials for child sexual abuse. But other strange rumors swirled around Jackson even back then, such as sleeping in his own oxygenated chamber. There are also a couple of references to Michael’s chimp, Bubbles. The chimp reportedly slept in a crib in Jackson’s bedroom.
One reason MJ undoubtedly soft-pedals Michael Jackson’s image is that the Jackson family was involved in creating the musical.
MJ is first and foremost for Jackson fans who want to bask in the glory of one of their favorite performers. As Jackson, Banks repeats more than once, “it’s all about the music.”
Early in the show, a female TV reporter and her cameraman manage to get permission to film some of Jackson’s practice sessions. At times, he is cornered for brief interviews. Unfortunately, they are no more illuminating than those Jackson gave while he was alive. Speaking in a soft, almost childlike voice, Jackson is evasive, elusive and guarded. “No matter what I do, it gets twisted,” he laments to his interviewer.
A number of scenes depict Michael as someone who is trying to accomplish what he does best—stage musical numbers—under less-than-ideal circumstances. According to Lynn Nottage’s book, Jackson comes across as a strongly sympathetic figure. In this musical’s story arc, Jackson is just trying to achieve his artistic vision, while being under intense pressure from the media, his family and his fans. Even the tour manager and an accountant try to talk Jackson out of his more outlandish (and costly) last-minute changes.
Jackson’s financial troubles come into play by his rash decision to mortgage Neverland in order to raise cash to finance tour costs.
MJ does have some quiet moments, and the best may be contained in a scene where a young Michael and his mother, Katherine (Anastasia Talley) sing a duet to Jackson’s hit song, “I’ll Be There.”
But the musical is at its best during the heart-pumping production numbers. The show begins (wisely) with a full-tilt ode to Jackson’s “Beat It.” During the 2.5-hour show, there are tributes to “Bad,” “Billie Jean,” “Black or White,” “The Way You Make Me Feel” and, near the finale, “Man in the Mirror.”
One of Jackson’s most enduring songs, “Thriller,” is cleverly staged as a hypnotic dreamscape, in which Jackson’s father morphs into one of the song’s characters. On press night, audience members started yelling as soon as Jackson dons the familiar red and black leather jacket that he wore so famously in the “Thriller” video.
All of the numbers are given top-notch theatrical treatment, with sounds, lights, projections and scrims filling the stage in a kaleidoscopic frenzy.
Paul Tazewell’s costumes cover the gamut from dancers’ workout wear to extremely flashy and elaborately tailored garments. They are matched by the sets (by Derek McLane), projections (by Peter Nigrini) and lighting (by Natasha Katz), which deliver the aura of actually attending one of Jackson’s concerts. It’s a continual round of knock-your-socks-off moments that are guaranteed to leave audiences in jaw-dropping wonder.
Not to be overlooked is the artistry of music supervisor David Holcenberg, whose orchestrations and arrangements take this show to the next level.
Only those who come to see MJ in the hope of unlocking the inner workings of his mind will be slightly disappointed. This is not a deep dive into Michael Jackson’s demons, or his visions, or how his talent made him an entertainer for the ages. However, Roman Banks and the rest of the talented cast make every second of this show a joy to behold.
MJ continues at the James M. Nederlander Theatre through September 2. The theater is located at 24 W. Randolph St. Tickets range from $52.50-$132.50. The show lasts 22.5 hours, with one intermission. For ticket information, contact broadwayinchicago.com.
For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.
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