Exactly 33 1/3 miles from the Michael Jackson Family Home in Gary, Indiana, MJ spins a platinum LP worth of hits at the Nederlander Theatre as Broadway in Chicago launches the Tony Award-winning musical’s national tour with a note-perfect, fleet-footed lead performance by Roman Banks. The King of Pop role fits him like a sequined glove.
Arguably more famous than the Chicago-area MJ with a statue at the United Center, Michael Jackson rose to worldwide fame under the aggressive, often abusive tutelage of his father, Joseph Jackson. Joseph is frequently, perhaps rightfully, held up as the villain of this story, in which Michael relives his fraught creative journey as he pushes himself and his collaborators to the breaking point on the eve of the 1992 Dangerous World Tour. That ambitious tour was ultimately cut short by more than a month when MJ entered treatment for his addiction to painkillers in November of 1993. The crisis is amply foreshadowed here, even as the show makes only oblique references to the pedophilia allegations that forever tarnished a brilliant musical career.
Downplaying the child-abuse scandals while playing up Joseph Jackson’s emotional and physical abuse of his family amounts to an apologia for whatever sins his most famous son grew up to commit. But those dubious artistic choices (the show is overseen by the Michael Jackson Estate) lead to the show’s most powerful set piece, in which “Thriller” is recontextualized as an exploration and expression of Michael’s childhood trauma. The scariest, most dangerous monsters are so often the people closest to us.
As the MTV documentarian who frames the show’s flashback structure points out, it’s impossible to separate Michael Jackson’s music from his difficult life story, but MJ is at its soaring best when it turns Banks loose on one of the 20th century’s most potent musical catalogs. His manner, his voice, his presence and, perhaps most of all, his gorgeous, scintillating dance moves are electric and transporting.
Director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and a company of top-flight dancers elevate the movement onstage to become not only symbiotic with but creatively equal to the music itself. It’s an astonishing show visually, to the point where many of Banks’ moves play like special effects.
Pulitzer winner Lynn Nottage delivers a servicable, fast-moving book that still feels like it could be tightened up. (In one perhaps meta moment, the tour manager is asked if he is enabling Michael’s addictive behavior. His reply, “That’s not fair,” feels a bit like pushback to anyone criticizing Nottage and other heavy hitters for taking on this project for “money, money, money, money, MONEY,” off-limits subjects be damned.) But then the next song comes and Banks sweeps the audience away with spot-on vocals supported by a tight 12-piece orchestra that includes a lead guitarist, Jen Leigh, who deservedly gets her own moment to thrash in the spotlight.
It’s impossible to call out all the winning numbers in a jukebox musical that elicited multiple ovations during Wednesday night’s opening performance, along with sustained revelry at the curtain call. But standouts include sizzling opener “Beat It,” a propulsive “Bad” and “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough,” a surprisingly engaging “Smooth Criminal” and “Man in the Mirror,” and, of course, the killer “Thriller” showcase, in which Devin Bowles, in a potent turn as the soul-poisoned Joseph, bedevils Michael as a literal monster breathing hellfire down his neck and leaving him nowhere to turn. Except to performing onstage, the one place where Michael says he experiences real love.
With all this talent delivering a wealth of sensational song-and-dance numbers, it’s hard not to love MJ the musical, even if the man it depicts casts a darker reflection we’d be remiss not to keep in mind.
MJ runs through September 2 at Broadway in Chicago’s Nederlander Theatre.
For a full roundup of reviews of this show, visit Theatre in Chicago.
Photo by Matthew Murphy