Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's recent review of Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash
MJ focuses on rehearsals for the 1992 Dangerous World Tour, as a documentary team from MTV are on hand to capture the creative process and gain insights into the reclusive artist. The musical opened on Broadway in 2022 and continues to pack the theater in New York eight times a week.
The book by Lynn Nottage is a mixed bag. Through the use of dialogue scenes, flashbacks, and staged interview Q&A sessions, the story of how challenges, hard work, self-doubt, and manipulation (primarily from Jackson's father) shaped both the creative genius and "unique" personality of the singer is clearly communicated. There are a couple of very funny one-liners, and the eccentricities of Michael are cleverly conveyed. However, much of the dialogue is stilted, about half of the numbers used as book songs are cringe inducing in how they serve the plot, and the general presentation of the story feels contrived. Also, setting the show in 1992 avoids having to address the soon-to-be-made-public accusations of sexual abuse of minors, and his yet-to-be marriages and children, all of which stirred up great controversy and are conveniently dodged here outside of a single mention of the vague "recent allegations". This choice may have been necessary to produce a commercial product, but it does feel too safe and unbalanced, especially considering the many mentions of Jackson's philanthropic endeavors in the show's dialogue.
Thankfully, the songs are the focus of the musical, and there are many wonderful ones. Whether from the early days of the Jackson 5 ("ABC," "I Want You Back"), his early solo work ("Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough"), or songs from his classic Thriller album ("Beat It," "Billie Jean," "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'"), the songs are well known and impossible to resist. Of those used to tell the story in the show, "You Can't Win" (dramatizing Michael's break from Motown) and "I'll Be There" (showing his mother's support of young Michael) are the most effective, with the use of "Price of Fame" and "Human Nature" much weaker.
Director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon certainly moves the show along at a quick pace, with smooth transitions and apt blocking and tone. There are two spots during which the audience is shown the artists that influenced Jackson, musical ones in Act 1 and dance in Act 2, all of which are extremely well presented and add historical depth to the production. The finale featuring "Man in the Mirror" is executed for both an artistic and emotional punch as well. Original Michael Jackson collaborators Rich + Tone Talauega have restaged many of the famous dances with flair and accuracy, and Wheeldon skillfully incorporates some original choreography into the show as well. Victor Simonson leads a talented orchestra consisting of both touring and local musicians, and they sound great.
Michael Jackson is performed by three different actors at various ages within the show. As "MJ," the version preparing for the Dangerous tour, Roman Banks supplies a wonderful vocal and physical representation of the singer at his peak. He captures the essence of the performer without crossing into caricature, and his dancing is especially exhilarating. Brandon Lee Harris is utterly appealing as the young adult "Michael," and he turns in praiseworthy performances of many of the songs in the artist's early solo career. Ethan Joseph is uber talented as "Little Michael" in singing, dancing and acting. All of the supporting and ensemble roles are executed with great skill, with special mention of Josh A. Dawson (Tito, Quincy Jones), Anastasia Talley (Kat, Katherine Jackson), and Mary Kate Moore (Rachel).
The design elements are eye popping. Derek McLane's handsome scenic design seamlessly incorporates very effective projections by Peter Nigrini and includes many intricately detailed set pieces. The lighting by Natasha Katz is well suited, varied, and professionally rendered. Paul Tazewell's costumes are fun and period appropriate, capturing the many outfits Jackson made famous.
With showstopper after showstopper from Jackson's iconic song catalog, MJ is certainly a crowd pleaser featuring outstanding performances, choreography, and design elements. The storytelling is cliche, safe, and formulaic at times, which limits the overall impact, but the vast majority of theatregoers are bound to be dancing in their seats regardless.
MJ The Musical runs through September 17, 2023, at the Aronoff Center, 650 Walnut St., Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, call 513-621-2787 or visit cincinnatiarts.org. For more information on the tour, visit tour.mjthemusical.com.