“Is it really possible to separate your life from your music?” asks the pesky documentary filmmaker in “MJ,” the Michael Jackson musical at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre.
The question hangs like a fog of stage smoke over this slickly produced show, as it attempts to weave together both the life and the music — but without quite delving into the more disturbing aspects of the former. (This comes as little surprise, since the musical was produced “by special arrangement with the estate of Michael Jackson.”)
“MJ” is as elaborately staged, by director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, as one of Jackson’s lavish videos for his smash-hit songs from the 1980s and 1990s. No small feat, that. What’s more, it manages, against considerable odds, to find magnetic performers to channel Jackson’s silken moves and distinctive voice at three different stages in his life. Jackson’s extensive catalog is also well-served, with the songs retaining their rhythmic thrust and insidiously catchy choruses, albeit in mostly truncated form, in the orchestrations by David Holcenberg and Jason Michael Webb. The ample dancing is often dazzling — kinetically superior to anything on Broadway.
And yet — you knew that was coming, didn’t you? — for all its surface flash and stylish presentation, “MJ” comes across, like most jukebox/bio-musical hybrids, as superficial fan-bait: a glossy but unrevelatory moonwalk through the ups and downs (mostly the ups) of Jackson’s career. Although Myles Frost, who plays the adult Jackson and is the show’s central performer, brings a bird-like delicacy — matched with bursts of ferocious energy in performance — to the role, the Michael Jackson on view never gains any real emotional depth or substance. Perhaps that’s appropriate: like the man himself, the character remains a cipher — although the shadows cast by the cipher are only cryptically alluded to.
Since Jackson, at the height of his fame, was so ubiquitous in pop culture, there is virtually nothing new to learn. Even non-fans will be familiar with everything covered by the show: his Jackson 5 years, under the brutal thumb of his abusive father, Joseph (Quentin Earl Darrington); his breakout success as a solo performer; his eccentricities, like his Neverland compound and fondness for Bubbles the chimpanzee. No one attending “MJ” will come away with fresh insights; the book remains as open as it always was, and as closed.
And while the show does a credible — perhaps even a little over-credible — job of establishing how much pressure Jackson was under, and the toll it took on him psychologically and physically (we see him popping pain pills), acknowledgment of the disturbing rumors of pedophilia that began to swirl, and have since been credibly established, is minimal. There are references from Jackson and his collaborators to the “flak from the media” and hints that Jackson could “use some good press.” At one point a reporter shouts out an unspecified question about “allegations.”
But, perhaps inevitably, the elephant in the room remains, well, outside the room. Indeed the elephant-size nature of the issue raises an existential question about the entire enterprise.
The musical opens in a capacious rehearsal studio (Derek McLane supplied the fine sets), where Jackson and his collaborators and managers are preparing for the singer’s “Dangerous” tour in 1992. Among the traits the show most firmly establishes is Jackson’s ambition and perfectionism, which, as the book by Lynn Nottage underscores, are a legacy of his domineering father. As he prepares for the tour, Jackson is worried that, coming off the monumental success of his prior one, he will need to outdo himself. That two-person documentary crew (Whitney Bashor and Gabriel Ruiz), on hand to pepper Jackson with questions, helpfully cue the many flashback sequences and throw in nuggets of biographical information as needed. “You were the first black artist to conquer MTV,” the interviewer, Bashour’s Rachel, reminds us.
Toggling between the past(s) and the present, “MJ” is at its best when music and movement take over, which is, fortunately, most of the time. A question about when Jackson’s love for music first emerged elicits the sentimental answer, “Growing up I can’t remember when my house wasn’t filled with music.” There follows a series of scenes showing the birth and growth of the Jackson 5, with the bright-voiced, nimble-limbed Christian Wilson (at the reviewed performance) portraying young Michael in a medley including “ABC,” “The Love You Save” and “I Want You Back.”
In between numbers we watch as Joseph drives his sons relentlessly, even taking a hand to Michael when he shows a rebellious streak, while also displaying an eye ready to rove away from his loyal wife, Katherine (a stoic but maternal Ayana George). Jackson’s later penchant for plastic surgery is also bluntly blamed on Joseph, when he mocks young Michael for his “big ol’ nose” and bad skin.
In the middle years, when Jackson was outgrowing his boyish wunderkind voice, the excellent Tavon Olds-Sample takes over the role, as Michael exchanges the harsh hand of his father, and his almost equally controlling first mentor, Berry Gordy (Antoine L. Smith), for the guidance of Quincy Jones (Apollo Levine), on his breakout solo album “Off the Wall.”
Wheeldon (“An American in Paris”), one of the most renowned ballet choreographers working today, stages the transitions between past and present seamlessly, and choreographs the more than two dozen musical passages with consummate skill. But while the dancing is superb, the choreography draws, naturally, on the familiar imagery from the music videos for Jackson’s biggest hits; the MTV-flavored movement rarely, if ever, shows any trace of Wheeldon’s own choreographic signature.
But where “MJ” loses its fleet footing is in the bland, exposition-heavy and often trite dialogue supplied by Nottage. To be fair, writing the book for musicals of this kind must be a thankless chore, between the necessity to shoehorn all the most salient details of a life into a coherent dramatic format and the need to set up a veritable freight train of song sequences. (Happily for Nottage, the operatic version of her play “Intimate Apparel,” featuring her own stunningly beautiful libretto, opened the day before “MJ” did.”)
Clichés, preachy speeches and baldly obvious dialogue abound. “I’m afraid I’ll never be good enough for him,” sighs young Michael. Berry Gordy: “I’m gonna make sure everybody knows your name. And, if you’re ready, there’s nothing that can stop you, but you.”
For Jackson’s ardent fans (and believers that he was not guilty of the behavior ascribed to him), “MJ” won’t raise any thorny issues. Others may not see it similarly; despite its vague references to the pedophilia accusations, the show essentially makes Jackson a victim of his father, his inherited perfectionism, the prying eyes of the media and a culture that denigrates Black talent.
That Jackson was, quite probably, also a victimizer himself makes this largely celebratory musical, from another perspective, potentially a morally questionable endeavor.
“MJ” opened at the Neil Simon Theatre on Feb. 1, 2022.
Review Photo: Matthew Murphy
Creative: Book by Lynn Nottage; Music orchestrated by David Holcenberg and Jason Michael Webb; Directed by Christopher Wheeldon; Choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon; Scenic Design by Derek McLane; Costume Design by Paul Tazewell; Lighting Design by Natasha Katz; Sound Design by Gareth Owen; Projection Design by Peter Nigrini; Hair and Wig Design by Charles LaPointe; Make-Up Design by Joe Dulude, II.
Producers: Lia Vollack, John Branca, John McClain, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Sony Music Entertainment, Roy Furman, Cue to Cue Productions, James L. Nederlander, Kumiko Yoshii, Naoya Kinoshita, Latitude Link, Candy Spelling, Stephen C. Byrd, John Gore Organization, Sandy Robertson, Ed Walson, Peter W. May, CJ ENM, Martin Bandier, Michael Cassel Group, Albert Nocciolino, Playful Productions, Ken Schur, Willette & Manny Klausner and Doug Morris.
The John Gore Organization owns Broadway News and its parent company, Broadway Brands.
Cast: Myles Frost, Whitney Bashor, Quentin Earl Darrington, Tavon Olds-Sample, Gabriel Ruiz, Walter Russell III, Christian Wilson, Raymond Baynard, Devin Trey Campbell, John Edwards, Ayana George, Kali May Grinder, Apollo Levine, Carina-Kay Louchiey, Michelle Mercedes, Kyle Robinson, Antoine L. Smith, Joey Sorge, Ryan VanDenBoom, Lamont Walker II and Zelig Williams.