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Review: Broadway’s MJ is an insanely entertaining homage to Michael Jackson

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Michael Jackson is a human Rorschach test: Where some see the greatest pop artist of all time, others see an entertainer raised in captivity and utterly detached from reality. Still others may be obsessed with his plastic surgery, a triumph of art over nature no doubt rooted in insecurity and made possible by near-limitless resources. Some might even see him as the Cassandra of our current state: the press once laughed at his surgical masks, but now we all wear them (in a Broadway theater, at least). And then there are the darker allegations that those who believe survivors feel compelled to corroborate.

With so many wildly different angles to approach the story of the late King of Pop, it shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone that playwright Lynn Nottage, director Christopher Wheeldon and the rest of the team are behind MJ, the new musical at Neil Simon Theater am Broadway, have chosen the least controversial: Michael Jackson’s music is compelling, and it’s at its best when performed to a live audience of musicians and dancers who know how to burn the house down.

Myles Frost (center) leads the cast of MJ on Broadway.
(© Matthew Murphy)

The tone of the show is set before the first note is played: dancers wander onto the stage and warm up as the audience enters. A stage manager warns we have “five minutes until Michael” as excitement mounts. When MJ (Myles Frost) finally enters, he is greeted by the audience as if he really is Michael Jackson reincarnated (which, after seeing his spot-on performance, he might be). The cast quickly launches into a charged performance of “Beat It,” and the crowd goes wild.

Rather than attempting to present a chronological staging of Jackson’s biography (which is pretty much a no-brainer for jukebox musicals), MJ proceeds from the Brechtian vanity of its opening moments: the entire show takes place within a rehearsal for Jackson’s 1992-93. “Dangerous World Tour” (conveniently right before allegations of sexual misconduct came to light). The presence of a small camera crew from MTV (Whitney Bashor and Gabriel Ruiz) prompts Michael to reminisce as memories of the past fade in and out like backing vocals on a Motown track.

Quentin Earl Darrington and Myles Frost appear in MJ on Broadway.
(© Matthew Murphy)

Little Michael (the extraordinary Christian Wilson at the performance I attended) emerges from the shadows of time with his brothers for a slick medley of Jackson 5 songs. This montage drives the exhibition forward, taking Michael from Indiana to California and to the tutelage of Berry Gordy (Antoine L. Smith). An older Michael (Tavon Olds sample) splits from the family band to produce solo albums like Off the Wall and Thriller with Quincy Jones (Apollo Levine). Michael sells millions of albums and wins eight Grammys – justifying a particularly hilarious prop from Buist Bickley.

But the price of fame is high as Michael struggles with his demanding family and a starved press hungry for the next outrageous story about “Wacko Jacko” (this is the second musical of the season and features a menacing chorus of reporters) . Meanwhile, Michael wrestles with his own expectations of perfection as he strives to make “Dangerous” the greatest concert in history.

Dancers in the rehearsal room seamlessly transition into characters from Michael’s life: the imposing Quentin Earl Darrington simultaneously plays Rob (a manager) and Joseph Jackson, Michael’s demanding and occasionally abusive father. Ayana George draws our hearts in the dual roles of a backup singer who needs reliable childcare and Michael’s mother, Katherine (her powerful performance of “I’ll Be There” is one of the show’s highlights). The story seems to spring naturally from the imagination of its subject, making MJ more elaborate (and therefore worth seeing) than most musicals of this type. Nottage deserves credit for that.

Myles Frost (center) leads the cast of MJ on Broadway.
(© Matthew Murphy)

Wheeldon uses Nottage’s script as a springboard for a fast-paced and dynamic production. His production numbers are reminiscent of Jackson’s iconic music videos (how could they not?) while bringing original choreography to the table. The result is the most impressive dance on a Broadway stage to date. MJ cements Wheeldon’s reputation as one of the great director-choreographers.

Derek McLane’s scenic design is as eclectic as Wheeldon’s staging, while Paul Tazewell’s detailed costumes allow for some remarkable quick changes (as does Charles LaPointe’s menagerie of period-specific wigs). Natasha Katz’s lighting enhances the staging’s fluid feel, delivering both intimate moments and explosive concert lighting. Peter Nigrini’s projections work in tandem with the set design and act as a breathtaking force multiplier for the dancers. On some of the most exciting production numbers like “Thriller” and “Smooth Criminal” we can feel the music in our chests thanks to Gareth Owen’s muscular sound design. You can’t get that close to a Michael Jackson concert in a Broadway home.

Tavon Olds-Sample and Myles Frost both play Michael Jackson in MJ on Broadway.
(© Matthew Murphy)

The most important factor supporting this is the lead actor: like Adrienne Warren as Tina Turner before him, Frost seems to channel his subject and makes us temporarily forget we’re even seeing an actor. Olds sample is similarly compelling, taking on the role of Michael throughout much of the 1970s and early ’80s and having us fire for the skinny teenager who can’t keep a song out of his mouth or a groove out of his body. Their performances are perfectly timed, and when they sing together and howl dueling wooooos, it’s pure joy.

Of course there will always be people who don’t find anything pleasant about Michael Jackson. They don’t believe such a troubled artist deserves a platform, and they’ll balk at Nottage’s propagandistic portrayal of Jackson as some sort of pop music ET—at once wonderful and too fragile for our fallen world. MJ is not for her. Rather, it’s for the millions of Michael Jackson fans whose loyalty to the King of Pop remains unbroken and who are eager to have a good time in a Broadway theater performing songs they already know and love. You will not be disappointed with MJ. I suspect it’s going to be a big fat hit.

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