by Brittany Crowell
How can you honor a man who did so much for a genre, for a race, and for HIV/AIDs awareness while reconciling with the demons that haunted him and harmed others? This is the main question I was asking as I walked into MJ, the recent West End transfer based on the life of Michael Jackson. While MJ’s book by Lynn Nottage touches on the demons haunting Michael Jackson on the eve of his infamous Dangerous world tour, there is no mention or recognition (not even in a program note) of the harm that he caused to many, choosing instead to focus on the glitz and glamour of Michael on the eve of his biggest tour yet, the year before the first allegation against Jackson was made.
Each element of the piece, however, was a true showcase of talent, craft, and artistry and deserves to be championed independently. The cast of tour dancers (consisting of Raymond Baynard, Kali May Grinder, Carina-Kay Louchiey, Michelle Mercedes, Kyle Robinson, Ryan Vandenboom, and Zelig Williams) were precise and sculpted in their choreography helmed by director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. There wasn’t a morsel of muscle that wasn’t fully activated in support of the movement and together with the background singers (Tavon Olds-Sample; John Edwards; Ayana George; Apollo Levine; and Lamont Walker II), they slid and moonwalked seamlessly into the various side-characters of Michael Jackson’s life story.
Three actors played Michael Jackson at different ages, Christian Wilson, Tavon Olds-Sample, and Myles Frost, and each of them brought a depth and playfulness to the troubled talent. The piece itself may as well be called “MF,” as our lead narrator, Myles Frost, stole the show, bringing a sad softness and a joyful energy to the icon. His portrayal of Michael (supported by movement coaches Rich + Tone Talauega) is crafted beautifully and watching Frost perform feels like watching the “King of Pop” himself on the stage.
The scenic design by Derek McLane is both epic and utilitarian, featuring a high-walled dance studio which transforms with disappearing windows and rolling, ever-shifting panels into the various sets of Michael’s concert and dreams, often intermingling the two. This is highlighted beautifully by Peter Nigrini’s projections and the lighting accents of designer, Natasha Katz, who lines the walls with colorful neon lights and spotlights to accent the time travel and transport the audience between reality and dream-scape, always hinting towards the impending concert tour. Costumes by Paul Tazewell recall the icon’s fashion forward style with extra sparkle and pizzazz, bringing back favorites and channeling Michael’s style in the costumes of his tour dancers as well.
The music, arranged and orchestrated by Jason Michael Webb and David Holcenberg is catchy and fun. MJ brings back the most iconic MJ moments while reinventing certain elements to better showcase the beginning of Michael’s emotional decline at the height of his creative climb. The reinvention of “Thriller” by Webb, Holcenberg, and Nottage as a love-hate ballad to the abusive monster that was his father was particularly touching, especially set in the Voodoo circus playground crafted by McLane and Tazewell.
Should you see MJ the musical? It is fun, it is catchy, and it brought audience members to hoot, holler, lift their hands, and get to their feet. It also (much like Michael Jackson himself) comes at a price, and one that the producers weren’t willing to acknowledge, perhaps out of fear of hurting their own commercial success. The piece investigates a troubled and talented man, a man who gave a lot to the world and who meant a lot to a lot of people, but also a man who caused a lot of hurt. If you do see this show, reconcile with yourself as you appreciate the talent onstage; consider the full picture as you listen to the man in the mirror sing, “…if you want to make the world a better place take a look at yourself and then make a change.”
MJ – Book by Lynn Nottage; orchestrations and musical arrangements by Jason Michael Webb and David Holcenberg; directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon
FEATURING: Myles Frost (MJ); Quentin Earl Darrington (Rob/Joseph Jackson); Whitney Bashor (Rachel); Gabriel Ruiz (Alejandro); Walter Russell III & Christian Wilson (Little Michael); Tavon Olds-Sample (Tour Singer, Michael, Isley Brother-dancer); Devin Trey Campbell (Little Marlon); Antoine L. Smith (Nick, Berry Gordy, Don Cornelius, Doctor); Joey Sorge (Dave); Raymond Baynard; John Edwards; Ayana George; Kali May Grinder; Apollo Levine; Carina-Kay Louchiey; Michelle Mercedes; Kyle Robinson; Ryan Vandenboom; Lamont Walker II, and Selig Williams.
Scenic design by Derek McLane; lighting design by Natasha Katz; costume design by Paul Tazewell; sound design by Gareth Owens; Projection Design by Peter Nigrini; wig and hair design by Charles LaPointe; make-up design by Joe Dulude II; associate director, Dontee Kiehn; associate choreographer, Michael Balderrama. Running at the Niel Simon Theater (250 West 52nd Street). https://mjthemusical.com/