"MJ: the Musical," show #854
I’ll be honest: I was not totally looking forward to seeing MJ: The Musical. I’m, at best, a moderate appreciator of the late pop icon’s music catalog. However, at the behest of my wife, we went and saw it, as she is a huge fan of his music. I was very, very happy that I ventured with The Mrs. to the Neil Simon Theatre to take in one of the strongest conceptualized, written, and performed jukebox/bio-musicals I’ve ever seen.
Myles Frost, who won a Tony Award for his work as the titular character, delivers a dynamite performance from opening beat to mega-mix post-bows. The role of MJ is in the small group of musical theatre roles whose dance moves are near-impossible to authentically replicate, as the real-life MJ was a unicorn of triple-threat abilities, and whose dance turns in concert and music video were catered and created to fit exactly his body. (The role of A Chorus Line’s Cassie comes to mind as well, with Michael Bennett and Bob Avian’s choreography of “The Music and the Mirror” being catered to fit Donna McKechnie’s body exactly.) However, Frost’s execution of the footwork and mannerisms in dance and walking is an embodiment of the late Jackson, fitting Frost’s body like the very glove that got applause at the top of act two. Frost’s incredible vocals, natural charm, and nuanced inflection make his performance a tour-de-force.
(Myles Frost (MJ) leading the Ensemble of dancers; Photo source: MJ: The Musical)
Supporting Frost is one of the hardest working ensembles I’ve seen since in quite some time. The dance, costume-change, and background vocal demands aren’t to be taken lightly, and this ensemble delivers on all accounts, executing Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography, whether new or recreated, with top-notch energy and precision. The show-stopping performance of “Thriller,” one of the most iconic songs in pop music history, was a literal thrill of a number as MJ battles his memories of an abusive father as told through dance; the number is complemented by Paul Tazewell’s pleasingly eccentric costume design. Apollo Levine and Ayana Jackson, playing MJ’s parents, among other roles, are standout supporting performers, with stellar vocals and acting turns to boot. Levine’s dual-duty as the hard-nosed Joseph Jackson and deeply understanding but tough Rob, director of MJ’s impending Dangerous tour, allows his acting chops and vocal power to be put on fine display. Jackson is a tender mother but not without showing loving strength towards MJ, Michael (MJ as a teenager/young adult), and Little Michael. Jackson shares an ear-throttling duet of incredible vocals in “I’ll Be There,” shared opposite Frost and Corey J. (playing Little Michael at the performance I saw.) Tavon Olds-Sample, as Michael, holds his own in sharing some of the weight carried by Frost with stellar energy and fantastic triple-threat prowess not often seen on a Broadway stage.
The show is told in an MTV Documentary style, and Lynn Nottage’s book holds the story together in a streamlined, entertaining, and responsible way. Anyone who is aware of MJ knows that with his music comes a swirl of controversies as part of his legacy. What Nottage and Wheeldon (also serving as director) have put together is a story mainly told from MJ’s perspective. While being interviewed by Rachel, played by a strong, and humorous when called for, Whitney Bashor, we get MJ’s responses where he just wants to talk about his music. The role of Rachel is written to be very one-note, but it’s the interviewer-subject relationship Frost and Bashor craft which gives the impression that the musical’s creators are in no way justifying, celebrating, or ignoring the allegations and confirmations of MJ’s problematic behavior, but rather they tell the story as if MJ were answering for himself, all the while keeping the music the focal point. The musical’s creators don’t over-hammer the point, nor do they shirk it; they tell it like it is from a very intentional and artistically sound perspective.
(Myles Frost (MJ) and Ensemble; Photo source: MJ: The Musical)
Derek McLane’s multi-set scenic design does the job well, whether it’s the rehearsal studio or one of the many studio/stage/”Thriller” settings the musical travels to. McLane’s efforts are fluid, part of the storytelling, and serve as a superb canvas for Natasha Katz’s Tony-winning lighting design, which balances exciting concert and moody spots and shadows to full effect in showcasing MJ’s rollercoaster journey. This production is simply fantastic, and Jason Michael Webb and David Holcenberg’s orchestrations and arrangements of MJ’s tunes complete this stellar production. If you are even a moderate fan of the music, I implore to go see this show, sit back, and enjoy the hits as presented in musical theatre form!