In several scenes in MJ THE MUSICAL, the larger than life musical about Michael Jackson, now at the Pantages, the King of Pop declares “I want to keep this about the music.”
Playwright Lynn Nottage and director Christopher Wheeldon do just that, bringing all the bling of more than thirty of Jackson’s top hits but leaving out events of the last two decades of Jackson’s life including child-molestation accusations, lawsuits, and the 2005 trial which acquitted him, the marriage to Lisa Marie Presley and endless stories of Jackson’s bizarre private life.
This is accomplished by setting the story in 1992, as Jackson is in the final stages of rehearsals for his “Dangerous” world tour. From the rehearsal, MJ, expertly played by Roman Banks, remembers flashbacks covering the beginning and rise of the Jackson 5, his abusive childhood, meeting Barry Gordy and signing with Motown, his awkward teenage years, working with Quincy Jones on Thriller and Off the Wall and reluctantly joining his brothers again for their Victory reunion tour.
MTV producer Rachel, who is documenting the days leading up to the tour and played by Mary Kate Moore, triggers Jackson back in time through her interview questions.
The first half of MJ The Musical covers most of his years up until 1992, with Josiah Benson and Ethan Joseph sharing the role of young Michael and Brandon Lee Harris playing the teenage and maturing Michael. The transitions from present to past appear seamless due to great casting, with actors playing dual parts. Devin Bowles takes on both the Dangerous tour director and MJ’s volatile father Joseph and moves effortlessly between supporter and abuser roles.
Jackson’s hits, including “I’ll Be There,” “Human Nature,” “Stranger in Moscow” and “They Don’t Care About Us,” are cleverly placed as commentary or show up to recreate a performance, including “Billie Jean,” Jackson 5 “I Want You Back,” “Smooth Criminal,” and “Beat It.”
The choreography, paired with Jackson’s signature moonwalk and other moves, is spectacular to watch. The sets (Derek Lane), lighting and projections (Peter Nigrini) and costumes (Paul Tazewell) drew applause from the audience, simulating Jackson’s huge production numbers when he toured.
There’s also a nice nod to those that influenced Jackson’s style with Fred Astaire, Bob Fosse and the Nicholas Brothers sharing some dance moves.
The second half loses a bit of steam as the flashbacks fade and the storyline is set in 1992. The Thriller sequence where Jackson is traumatized by a monster that morphs into his father as well as other demons in a carnival like atmosphere is a showstopper.
If you attend MJ the Musical to see incredible sets, performances, and phenomenal dance numbers then you will love the musical, but because the timeline cuts off 17 years of Jackson’s life and the newsworthy events that took place during that time, you might feel a bit cheated if you expected a full biographical glimpse of the troubled superstar.
MJ the Musical is playing at the Pantages now through January 28, 2024. For tickets, go to https://www.broadwayinhollywood.com or visit the Pantages box office at 6233 Hollywood Blvd.