Playing now at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, MJ the Musical is an unpretentious title for a bigger-than-life show about pop star Michael Jackson’s life and music. It is packed with themes that are at once identifiable and evoke memories of where one was in a particular point in life. Beat It, Billie Jean, Thriller, Smooth Criminal and so many other unforgettables mark Jackson’s genius and the underbelly of a spirit that would not quit.
It starts on an empty L.A. rehearsal studio, and grows exponentially, revealing the many facets of Jackson’s life, ending in a spectacular final scene. The young Roman Banks plays the iconic Michael Jackson, who physically simulates his wiry frame, his small, introverted speaking voice and his counterpoint high pitched “hits.” Banks gradually embodies the character’s spirit and by the second act we are caught in this sympathetic, brilliant and tragic Herculean force, called Michael Jackson.
Then with the combination of the show’s outstanding supporting leads, dancers, singers, and sensational musicians headed by David Holcenberg, music supervisor, orchestrator and arranger and Victor Simonson, Music Director, we are taken on a nostalgic and revealing roller coaster ride. The kind of energy and endurance required of Banks and his younger teenage self, (Ethan Joseph), is nothing short of breathtaking in this 2.5 hour show.
MJ’s father, played by Devin Bowles is commanding, dangerous and at moments sympathetic, attempting to ready his son for the cruel world he believes is waiting for him while he fills the space with threats of retribution. Anastasia Talley, Michael’s protective mother, knocks it out of the park in the moving “I’ll be there” with the young 10-year-old Michael played by Josiah Benson. Benson is vocally strong but lacks the seasoning to echo Jackson’s rise beyond his brothers. While Ethan Joseph plays Michael as a teen, who is already confident, knowing his own mind and priming for artistic leadership. Joseph appears to vocally pace himself until the combination of the three Michaels find their stride and move seamlessly through the story.
A cross-narrative integrates a small film crew into the story, with the aggressive, calculating Rachel, played by Mary Kate Moore and her cameraman Alejandro (Da’von T. Moody) shadowing Jackson during a tough rehearsal period for MJ’s final tour, This is it. On stage, and in real life, this tempus interruptus ends up being a controversy, at times informative and at points a distraction in the show.
The choreographer/director, Christopher Wheeldon, noted for such lyrical narrative works as his Tony Award winning American in Paris and Like Water For Chocolate shows his collaborative mettle as one who unites both movement, story and its complicated transitions. Wheeldon’s MJ is a stretch, as he collaborates with Lynn Nottage, double Pulitzer winning writer, both enthused and challenged by the complicated narrative.
In keeping with Jackson’s art, Wheeldon credits the talents of a number of original coaches and choreographers. He intelligently and selflessly consults and credits these originators to make sure the integrity of Jackson’s style is preserved. Rich and Tone Teluego, who worked with Jackson on and off throughout his career and helped develop some of Jackson’s signature moves, have shared their talents in this show. Credited also were Michael Peters, Vince Paterson, and Jeffrey Daniels, for their enormous contribution to both movement and concepts adding Gregg Burge, and Travis Payne to the mix. With that, the full strength of Wheeldon’s intelligence and theatricality clearly forges this mythical story of an American Icon. Adapting from its origins, Wheeldon’s ability to stage the work is his gift. He puts the audience on a roller coaster of dramatic and moving transitions. Within the show was a tour de force recognizing the styles of past masters Fred Astaire, Nicholas Brothers and Fosse. The outstanding dancers move into a legato, amalgam of Fosse and Jackson signature moves that blast into Smooth Criminal. A powerful transition that nearly moves us out of our seats.
All of this is embellished by Derek McLane’s powerful scenic designs, neon and constructions; Natasha Katz exciting and musical Lighting, and Paul Tazewell’s Costume Designs from funky practice clothes, to black and white jackets and fedoras, and exciting spangled Jackson regalia.
MJ’s audience learns much of his journey, enough to instigate deep excitement and sadness for the loss of his innovation, his talent and, yes, his genius. Hopefully, his memory and poetry will have the staying power and not be lost to time. If this theatrical tribute is any indication of what he generated, he will be with us for a long time.
MJ the Musical’s limited run will be at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood until January 28, 2024.
For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood’s website.
Written by Joanne DiVito for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: Myles Frost and cast in MJ The Musical – Photo by Matthew Murphy.