Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

National Tour
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of Skeleton Crew, The Spitfire Grill, Sea Cabinet, Blended Harmony: The Kim Loo Sisters

Jamaal Fields-Green and Cast
Photo by Matthew Murphy
MJ is a galvanizing musical about the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. Now into its third year on Broadway, the national tour is in Minneapolis for two weeks. If you see it, I predict this is a show you will never forget. Yes, it is a jukebox bio-musical, a genre often chided as being a mere rehash of the subject's catalog and a run-through of "behind the music" events and relationships that either bolstered or obstructed their career. MJ, with a superbly written book by two-time Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage and visionary direction by Christopher Wheeldon, is something else. This is a genuinely rich drama so well written, it could work well as a non-musical play. Adding the bonanza of Michael Jackson's amazing output of songs staged with enough energy to put a rocket into orbit, makes for a magnificent show that is far better experienced than described.

MJ places Michael in 1992, at age 34, preparing for his next big international "Dangerous Tour," to follow up his most recent album. He feels a lot of pressure for "Dangerous" to match the phenomenal success of his previous two albums, "Thriller" and "Bad," and to recapture the ecstatic response to his "Bad Tour" a few years prior. Michael is a dreamer with extravagant ideas for staging his performance, including an opening that is probably impossible to achieve, and if it can be done, would bankrupt the whole enterprise. Michael is also a perfectionist, pushing himself, his dancers and singers, and his stage crew to ever more exacting standards and extra hours of rehearsal. He wants to create moments on stage that are so unexpected and perfectly executed, his fans will never forget them–or him.

Into this soup, MTV sends a reporter named Rachel to make a documentary about the tour preparations. Michael's tour producer, Rob, tells him they can use some good publicity after reports about some of the superstar's eccentric behavior. Michael agrees, but insists that the film be solely about the music. Rachel, however, intends to get beneath Michael's skin and reveal the secrets of his past and present life. Even as Michael evades her questions, they prompt him to ruminate on his early years, revisiting the successes, but mainly the tremendous pressure exerted by his father, who isn't adverse to knocking Michael down with a slap if he doesn't measure up. His mother's religiosity enables her to turn a blind eye to her husband's tyranny, even as she offers Michael comfort, making poignant use of the Jackson Five hit "I'll Be There," with the 34-year-old superstar joining his remembered childhood-self and his mother in song.

Michael was just five when he first performed in 1962 with his four older brothers, known then as The Jackson 5. He spent his childhood practicing and performing, harshly driven by their stern father Joseph. In 1968 they signed on with Motown Records, the following year Motown's loftiest star, Diana Ross, introduced the group on a nationally broadcast TV special, and just a few months later, they kicked off 1970 with their first number one hit, "I Want You Back," which stayed atop the charts for four weeks. By then Michael had become the group's lead singer. At age 11 his name was becoming a household word. That's a lot of living compressed into the first decade of a boy's life.

The book weaves between the present moment, those early memories, and later ones. Michael revisits his early success guided by Berry Gordy, his venture into going solo, his association with producer Quincy Jones, and the euphoria of "Thriller." Those memories seem to drive his need to do the impossible on his tour. He is oblivious to the fact that he is hemorrhaging money, and that the grueling paces he puts his body through, along with the aftermath of a serious burn injury a few years before (famously while filming a commercial for his tour sponsor, Pepsi Cola), have made him dependent on painkillers. That, and rumors about multiple plastic surgeries, bleaching his skin, sleeping in an oxygen chamber, as well as intimations of other topics that are never stated, have everyone around Michael on edge.

Setting the play at this specific time in Jackson's life was a shrewd strategy. He is a man at the peak of success, wielding tremendous power through the gentlest of voices, yet riddled by a troubled past and worrying flaws. He has the means to mask his physical and emotional pain, but for how long? He has made a fortune, yet his extravagant showmanship and almost obsessive philanthropy puts him at risk of financial ruin. In 1992 he had not yet entered into either of his two brief and curious marriages, nor endured two trials for charges of child molestation that became tabloid fodder and cast an enduring veil over his deserved repute as an artist and innovator. In effect, he is positioned as a tragic hero, balancing on the edge of a whirlwind of music, dancing, and lights.

Jamaal Fields-Green (who alternates in the lead role with Roman Banks) captures the full range of Michael's feelings: his drive, his enormous confidence at war with a touching vulnerability, his extreme generosity, and his need to give his fans moments on stage that will feed and sustain their adoration of him. He has a playful sense of humor, though at times he's the only one in on the joke. Fields-Green conveys all this, sings with the strong, high voice that was Jackson's gift, and moves with the impeccable grace and timing expected of the star that gave us the moon dance. We are not fooled into believing that Fields-Green is the real thing on stage–could anyone?–but his performance has us believing in the experiences and feelings that are the core of the show.

A large supporting cast and ensemble pitch in with excellent performances, especially Devin Bowles as both tour producer Rob and Michael's father Joseph. There are moments in the present when Michael is working through an issue with Rob, and his mind drifts back to his childhood, with Bowles shifting character so smoothly from Rob to Joseph and back to Rob it would seem there were two actors, not one, portraying the two very differently tempered men. Josiah Benson (alternating with Bane Griffith) as Little Michael projects a sense of the charisma and strong, sweet voice that drew attention to Jackson at so early an age.

Also notable are J. Daughtry in the roles of tour director Nick, Berry Gordy, and "Soul Train" host Don Cornelious, making a keen impression in each role; Mary Kate Moore as the determined reporter Rachel; Anastasia Talley, soulfully singing "I'll Be There" beautifully along with her son, both as a child and an adult; and dancer Croix DiIenno who, in a dream segment, splendidly embodies the choreographer Bob Fosse, one of Michael's influencers.

That sequence, in which Michael conjures up some of his greatest influences–in addition to Fosse, the Nicholas Brothers and Fred Astaire appear–then shows us what facet of each of those great dancers' work he melded into his own, is brilliant conceived and performed. There are other fantastic production numbers, with vigorous Tony award winning choreography by Christopher Wheeldon executed with precision and verve by the ensemble. Michael's dancing has additional choreography from Rich + Tone Talauega, who danced behind the real Michael Jackson, as well as such superstars as Madonna, Jennifer Lopez, and Usher. Their involvement no doubt is one reason Fields-Green's dancing feels as authentic as it does, but also sets it apart from the dancing going on around him. Perhaps that is another aspect of its authenticity–not having ever seen Michael Jackson in person myself, I couldn't say, but it wouldn't surprise if he always did seem set apart from everything else on stage, for how could he ever blend in?

The physical production serves the show exceptionally well. Derek McLane's scenic design is fairly simple, primarily a large, unadorned rehearsal hall with roll-in platforms as needed–though there is one elaborate scene, recreating a nightmare going through Michael's head, that brought to mind McLane's fantastic scenic design for Moulin Rouge. Otherwise, the simplicity works as an effective frame for Natasha Katz's extraordinary lighting (for which she won a Tony Award) which establishes each scene, and when Michael is performing, surrounds him with vertical columns of light in constant motion. Gareth Owen's sound design (also Tony-awarded) recreates the unique sound of Jackson's recordings and is vibrant without, as in some shows, being excessively loud. Paul Tazewell's costumes reflect well on the styles of the decades the show travels through–the '60s, '70s, and '80s–and he aptly recreates Jackson's amazing, iconic fashion sense.

Michael Jackson lived for sixteen years past the time in which MJ is set, years in which he continued to produce successful work and be a huge star, but which also revealed some of the most controversial aspects of his life. None of that is in MJ, for which the show has borne some criticism. From this reviewer's vantage point, had the show's arc extended through those final years, the emphasis would have shifted in that direction, and what MJ reveals about the man as an artist and as a force that exerted tremendous influence over contemporary culture would be overshadowed. The show works exceptionally well at covering the ground it has chosen to cover, and need not apologize for being other than what it is.

I have held to the opinion that the most outstanding example of a bio-jukebox musical is Jersey Boys, with Beautiful - the Carole King Musical a step behind. As a vehicle that tells the story of one of the greatest musical artists of our recent past, I would place MJ on par with Beautiful. For sheer entertainment, I would put it at the very top. With its propulsive music, dancing, stagecraft and performances, it is hard to imagine what could "beat it."

MJ runs through May 26, 2024, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. For tickets and the performance schedule call 612-339-7007 or visit For information on the tour, visit

Book: Lynn Nottage: ; Director and Choreographer: Christopher Wheeldon; Michael Jackson Movement: Rich + Tone Talauega; Music Supervisor: David Holcenberg; Orchestrations and Arrangements: Jason Michael Webb and David Holcenberg; Music Supervision: Michael Rafter; Scenic Design: Derek McLane; Costume Design: Paul Tazewell; Lighting Design: Natasha Katz; Sound Design: Gareth Own; Hair and Wig Design: Charles G. LaPointe; Makeup Design: Joe Dulude II; Associate Global Director: Dontee Kiehn; Associate Global Choreographer: Michael Balderrama; Music Director and Conductor: Victor Simonson; Music Coordinator: John Miller; Casting: The Telsey Office – Rachel Hoffman, CSA, Lindsay Levine, SCA; Resident Director: Victoria Davidjohn; Assistant Director: Christopher Campbell; Production Stage Manager; Shawn Pennington; Stage Manager: Geoff Maus; Assistant Stage Managers: Maya Bhatnagar, Xavier Khan; Executive Producer: Michael David.

Cast: Roman Banks (MJ), Josiah Benson * (Little Michael), Devin Bowles (Rob/Joseph Jackson), JoJo Carmichael (swing), J. Daughtry (Nick/Berry Gordy), Josh A. Dawson (Tito Jackson/Quincy Jones), Croix DiIenno (Tour Dancer/Bob Fosse/Newscaster), Kellie Drobnick (Tour Dancer/Soul Train Dancer), Kyle DuPree (swing), Jamaal Fields-Green (MJ – Alternate), Zuri Noelle Ford (Tour Dancer/Suzanne dePasse/Isley Brother Dancer), Bane Griffith * (Little Michael), Brandon Lee Harris (Michael), Jahir L. Hipps (swing), Bryce A. Holmes (Little Marlon), Skye Jackson-Williams (swing), Jacobi Kai (Keith/Jermaine Jackson/Isley Brother Vocal), Rajane Katurah (swing), Matt Loehr (Dave), Jordan Markus (u/s MJ, u/s Michael), Matteo Marretta (Tour Dancer/Fred Astaire), Jay McKenzie (Tour Singer/Jackie Jackson/James Brown Vocal), Kendrick Mitchell (swing), Chelsea Mitchell-Bonsu (Tour Dancer/Isley Brother Dancer/Nicholas Brother), Mary Kate Moore (Rachel), Zion Mikhail Pradier (swing), Ayla Stackhouse (swing), Anastasia Talley (Kate/Katherine Jackson), Brion Marquis Watson (Tour Dancer/Marlon Jackson/James Brown Dancer/Nicholas Brother), Charles P. Way (swing), Malcom Miles Young (Tour Dancer/Randy Jackson/Jackie Wilson Dancer). *alternating performances