Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

National Tour
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's recent reviews of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Marjorie Prime and Beautiful - The Carole King Musical

Devin Bowles and Roman Banks
Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade
The national tour of MJ is an electrifying tribute to the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, celebrating his life, legacy, and contributions to the world of music and dance. While you may not learn anything new about Jackson from the by-the-numbers book, with a stellar cast, dynamic choreography, and a hit-packed musical score, the national tour, which runs through Sunday at ASU Gammage, captures the essence of Michael Jackson's phenomenal career. It also features a stellar portrayal of Jackson by Roman Banks.

MJ takes the audience on a nostalgic journey through Jackson's life, from his humble beginnings in Gary, Indiana, to his meteoric rise to superstardom as a solo artist. The musical is set in 1992 in a Los Angeles rehearsal hall where Jackson and his dancers are rehearsing for his upcoming tour to promote his latest album, "Dangerous," which would span four continents and run for over a year. A reporter and cameraman from MTV are there to make a documentary on the preparation for the concert, and through the questions, as Jackson is asked about his past and his experiences, we revisit key moments from Jackson's career, including his time with the Jackson 5, his groundbreaking solo albums like "Thriller" and "Bad," his multiple Grammy wins, and his legendary performances and dance moves, such as the iconic moonwalk.

Lynn Nottage's book does a fairly decent job of highlighting the important moments in Jackson's past and finding a way to weave these memories together. However, some of the songs are shoe-horned in as a way to depict Jackson's feelings about his harsh and abusive father and the price of fame, and not much new is learned about Jackson from anyone who has even a limited knowledge of his career and background. While mention is made of "strange stories making the rounds" from the MTV reporter in the show, it sets all of the action a year before the allegations Jackson faced for sexually abusing children which, I guess, is the easiest way to completely skirt the issue while also alluding to it, and instead focusing the show on Jackson's contributions to the music industry.

Perhaps since we may never know if Jackson was innocent or guilty of those allegations, it makes sense to center this biomusical on his performances and the major highlight of MJ is its breathtaking choreography, which showcases Jackson's signature dance moves with precision and flair. From the iconic spins and slides of "Smooth Criminal" to the intricate footwork of "Beat It," the choreography perfectly captures the essence of Jackson's signature style. Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, who also directed the production and won a Tony Award for his choreography, deserves praise for his innovative and dynamic routines (along with Rich + Tone Talauega, who are credited with Michael Jackson Movement), which pay homage to Jackson's legendary dance legacy while also adding fresh and contemporary moves. Every musical number is different from the one before it and the athleticism and artistry exhibited by the entire cast in creating these varied and non-stop dance moves is exceptional. Seeing these dances live on stage makes for a more dazzling experience than watching Jackson's many music videos, which feature edited versions of the steps.

Wheeldon's staging also uses several movable pieces from Derek McLane's smart set design to swiftly transport us back and forth in time with the combination of Peter Nigrini's projections, which add an immersive layer of archival images and photos, and Natasha Katz's evocative lighting. The costumes by Paul Tazewell are wonderful re-creations of several of Jackson's well-known outfits (including the famous jeweled glove) and the orchestra and entire cast sound fantastic under Victor Simonson's music direction and the sound design from Gareth Owen.

With impeccable vocals, mesmerizing dance moves, and a striking resemblance to the pop icon, Roman Banks embodies Jackson's essence with authenticity but also with admiration. From his soulful renditions of ballads like "Human Nature" to his electrifying performances of hits like "Billie Jean" and "Bad," his vocals soar with the familiar pops, phrasing, and vocal ticks that Jackson was known for, and his exceptional dance moves are sleek and captivating. Bank's portrayal beautifully evokes the spirit of this legendary performer.

Complementing Banks are the supporting cast members, who all play characters rehearsing or preparing for Michael's upcoming tour and who also quickly morph into individuals in his past. Devin Bowles is impressive as both Michael's harried tour manager and his abusive father, alternating between the kind-hearted producer and the domineering father with sleek agility. Mary Kate Moore is firm as the reporter who sets out to "get inside" Michael's head. From the endearing portrayal of young Michael by Josiah Benson to Brandon Lee Harris's spirited performance of Michael as a young adult, the actors who plays the Jackson siblings in the Jackson 5, and the dynamic ensemble of dancers who bring Jackson's iconic choreography to life, each member of the cast creates energetic and believable characters.

MJ is a crowd-pleasing tribute to the King of Pop. With its stellar cast, dynamic choreography, and hit-packed soundtrack, the national tour production captures the magic of Jackson's stellar career. MJ should resonate with fans of all ages as it celebrates the enduring legacy of one of music's greatest legends.

MJ runs through March 17, 2024, at ASU Gammage, 1200 S. Forest Avenue, Tempe AZ. For tickets and information, please visit or call 480-965-3434. For information on the tour, visit

Book: Lynn Nottage
Director and Choreographer: Christopher Wheeldon
Musical Supervision, Orchestrations and Arrangements: David Holcenberg
Scenic Design: Derek McLane
Lighting Design: Natasha Katz
Costume Design: Paul Tazewell
Sound Design: Gareth Owen
Projection Design: Peter Nigrini
Hair and Wig Design: Charles Lapointe
Makeup Design: Joe Dulude Ii
Global Associate Director: Dontee Kiehn
Global Associate Choreographer: Michael Balderrama
Dance Supervisor: Justin Prescott
Orchestrations and Arrangements: Jason Michael Webb
Music Director: Victor Simonson
Production Stage Manager: Shawn Pennington
Michael Jackson Movement: Rich + Tone Talauega
Music Coordinator: John Miller

MJ: Roman Banks
Michael: Brandon Lee Harris
Little Michael: Josiah Benson
Joseph Jackson/Rob: Devin Bowles
Rachel: Mary Kate Moore
Berry Gordy/Nick: J. Daughtry
Tito Jackson/Quincy Jones: Josh A. Dawson
Little Marlon: Bryce A. Holmes
Dave: Matt Loehr
Alejandro: Da'von Moody
Katherine Jackson: Anastasia Talley
Jermaine Jackson/Ensemble: Jacobi Kai
Jackie Jackson/Ensemble: Jay McKenzie
Ensemble: Croix, Kellie Drobnick, Zuri Noelle Ford, Matteo Marretta, Chelsea Mitchell-Bonsu, Brion Marquis Watson, Malcolm Miles Young
Swings: JoJo Carmichael, Kyle DuPree, Jahir Hipps, Rajane Katurah, Skye Jackson Williams, Kendrick Mitchell, Zion Mikhail Pradier, Ayla Stackhouse, Charles P Way