Michael Jackson, one of the most beloved and influential musicians of all time, chased perfection his entire existence. It’s unfortunate he is not alive to witness the flawless production of MJ the Musical, a model biographical musical now open at the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway.
Under the exemplary direction and choreography of Christopher Wheeldon, the production gives context to Jackson’s inherited demons and zooms in on his daunting creative process and peerless genius. MJ is the platinum standard the often-uninspired, generic jukebox musical could benefit to emulate.
The musical doesn't tell his full life story. The book by two-time Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage narrows in on Jackson’s Dangerous Tour rehearsals in 1992 — well before allegations of child molestation charges against Jackson arose. With the Jackson estate on the production team, Nottage has fixed this musical’s lens on the stories the artist told through his music. Jackson’s troubled childhood, pain, and loneliness fueled creativity and inspired the lyrics he wrote.
Nottage’s brilliant book gives the character of Jackson depth, and Myles Frost (who plays the eldest of three MJs who share the role) embodies the musician’s complex persona. With every “hee-hee” and pelvic thrust, one can almost forget they're not seeing the King of Pop before their eyes. It’s not easy to sing a Jackson song or move with the late star’s precision, flexibility, and finesse. Many American Idol auditions have proven this true. But here, Frost has immersed himself into the spirit of Michael Jackson, producing distinct parallels to the icon’s childlike behavior, restlessness, and paranoia.
Frost gives this show not only his divine voice, but also a nuanced performance that humanizes the flawed superstar. In fact, all three generations of MJ exceed expectations. Little Michael (a talented Christian Wilson at the performance I saw) and young adult Michael (a fierce Tavon Olds-Sample) work together in seamless transitions to tell the full story of Jackson's early years.
Both Quentin Earl Darrington (Once On This Island), and Ayana George (Broadway debut), who play Joe and Katherine Jackson, respectively, give powerhouse vocal performances. George especially shines during “I’ll Be There,” an affectionate duet with Little Michael. Though one can read Katherine as an enabler to Joe’s rampant physical and emotional abuse, this number gives a tender softness to her love and vowed protection of Jackson.
Darrington also plays Rob, Jackson’s trusted tour manager. The smooth and swift changes between a man Jackson fears and a man he trusts give scene transitions delicate density.
Musical numbers like “They Don’t Really Care About Us,” “Human Nature,” “Stranger in Moscow,” and “Thriller” are the show’s highlight reels. The numbers are filled with Wheeldon’s masterful choreography, blending modern dance, Jackson’s iconic moves from the 90s, and deep, soul-stirring storytelling of the artist’s triumphs and tribulations. The dance ensemble delivers paramount performances that leave an imprint on the memory. This team is a true tour-de-force.
In the audience, some longtime fans sang along and cried, others who never experienced Jackson live remained mesmerized, and even a few skeptics cheered thunderously. They’d gasped loudly every time Frost changed a jacket or put on the iconic bedazzled glove.
Paul Tazewell’s magnificent costume design carries the cast through the MJ timeline seamlessly. A killer set by Derek McLane, amplified by gorgeous lighting by Natasha Katz, gives the show a visual beauty that makes it hard to look away.
While Jackson's story is flawed, it’s too complicated for anyone who hasn’t danced in his shoes. MJ The Musical, however, is the perfect salutation to the life of an imperfect but gifted icon.
Photo credit: Myles Frost and the company of MJ The Musical. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)