Regional Reviews: Chicago
Jackson's oeuvre largely serves as the source of the music (with brief appearances by Jackie Wilson, the O'Jays, and a few other R&B founding fathers). As Lynn Nottage's book tells us, Jackson believed that his music should speak for itself. Nottage, however, is intelligent enough to know that the rock star's personal life was far too intertwined with it to ignore. Setting the musical on the eve of Jackson's prodigious Dangerous World Tour–an expensive international extravaganza that traveled to Europe, Asia, and Latin America (by design, the tour did not include the United States)–and adding a fictional MTV film team, she provides moments of intimacy among the huge choreographed numbers. Gifted choreographer/director Christopher Wheeldon, basing his dances on Jackson's iconic work (as you'd expect), takes these large group dances to often unexpected places, creating a moving tapestry with MJ (played perfectly by Roman Banks) and his backing dancers. It is so captivating that Wheeldon even gives over a significant amount of time at the start of Act Two for stylized dances based on famous choreographers like Bob Fosse to allow us to understand the evolution of Jackson's original moves. Intriguing, to devote so much time to non-Jackson music, but it works: we end up with a much broader understanding of the artist's place among the greats.
Nottage's inclusion of the film team doesn't completely penetrate the notoriously private Jackson's walls but, in those semi-confessional private moments, it does let us see him more clearly. It's a gimmick, sure, but she needed something to get past the layers of protection (internal as well as external) that shielded Jackson from the world. Sadly, within the conceit, there is no way to develop these characters much, so the cameraman is a comic fanboy and we are never quite sure whether Mary Kate Moore's Rachel, who is allowed some lovely duets with Jackson, will actually use the compromising footage Loehr accidentally shoots of Jackson's handlers discussing his out of control pain-killer habit. Still, as these characters are the only ones outside of Jackson's "orbit," they serve to allow us past the walls as well.
The musical is structured so that we not only see the Dangerous tour in its final stages of construction–complete with enough money problems that Jackson had to mortgage Neverland to pay for it–but also slide back and forth in time to see Jackson develop his love and talent for music with his family in Gary, Indiana. Devin Bowles turns in an outstanding double performance as the abusive Joseph Jackson and the mild-mannered (fictional) tour manager Rob, often changing from one to the other in the middle of scenes; he's so good that nothing is ever confusing. We watch as Joseph treats his talented children as workhorses and hollers, threatens, and berates them. As portrayed here, his abuse is mostly psychological, but the threats are frightening. Joseph's extremes are countered by the ever-loving presence of Michael's mother Katherine (played by Anastasia Talley), who comforts him whenever Joseph goes too far. (She must have spent half his childhood comforting him.) The lovely ballad "I'll Be There" is turned into a promise from mother to child.
Banks is a wonderful MJ (the show uses that name for the grown-up Michael). His vocals and dance moves are almost perfect replications of Jackson's (and he's a joy to watch as he moonwalks across the stage). His speaking voice, like Jackson's, is quiet to the point of being an homage to shyness, a dynamic contrast with his singing and stage presence. But that understated, powder-puff voice never meant that Jackson was a pushover; Banks shows his capacity to use it with full command as he forces his dancers and the tour directors to adhere to his demanding vision. Brandon Lee Harris and (on opening night) Josiah Benson play the young adult and child Jackson, respectively, and it is to Wheeldon's credit that the shifts between them are practically seamless. Many of Jackson's famous pop hits are included, from The Jackson 5's "The Love You Save" to the quintessential "Thriller" (which is presented in full Dangerous World Tour iconography and staging), and the various Michaels handle them beautifully, as does Wheeldon. And while "Bad," "Beat It," "Black or White," and others entertain with their high-energy movements, my personal favorites here were "Human Nature" and "Man in the Mirror," two quieter songs that allow Banks to tap into MJ's depths.
By the time we get to the finale, with its glimpses of the tour (including the "toaster lift" effect Jackson used for his initial entrance, an expensive indulgence MJ had fought for throughout the show), we have been treated to a vibrant, thrilling (pun intended) evening with the King of Pop. It may not satisfy those wanting to dig deeper into his complicated life, but who cares? With all of the great performances enhanced by a dynamic set design (Derek McLane), exciting projections (Peter Nigrini), amazing costumes (Paul Tazewell), and a perfect blow-them-out-of-their-seats sound design* (Gareth Owen), this is a show you'll remember for a long time.
* My husband would want me to note that I'm not kidding about this. It's loud. As he said, "I thought the Nederlander was going to come down around our ears." Most of the wonderfully diverse, costumed crowd, though, loved it.
Presented by Broadway in Chicago, MJ runs through September 2, 2023, at the Nederlander Theatre, 24 W Randolph St, Chicago IL. For tickets, please visit www.broadwayinchicago.com/show/mj/. For more information on the tour, visit tour.mjthemusical.com>