Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
So it is almost unfathomable to me how much stress Roman Banks, Brandon Lee Harris, and Josiah Benson, and Bane Griffith must feel each night as they step onto the stage to portray Michael Jackson (at three stages of his career) in the musical version of his life, MJ. It's one thing to play a king, but stepping into the shoes of the King of Pop? That's a horse of another color, as the Wizard of Oz once said. Yet, for the most part, Banks, Harris (to a somewhat lesser extent), and Griffith (who played Little Michael the night I saw the show) acquitted themselves quite well. Abetted by a terrific cast of talented, athletic dancers/singers and top-notch performances by supporting players, MJ is a thrill ride through the Michael Jackson catalog (and beyond), with brilliant choreography and enough "smelly" beats (to use a term from the show) to make you want to leap into the aisles and join in the joy yourself.
As the oldest version of Michael, Roman Banks fully inhabits the role. His dancing is so stellar, so precise, and so powerful that–combined with the spot-on costuming (by Paul Tazewell)–no one would blame you for thinking it was MJ himself on the stage. Watching Banks as Michael reminded me that his facial expressions when he performed were an enormous part of his persona. Banks nails them all, but when he makes the elongated "O" shape with his mouth, you'd swear he's channeling the Gloved One himself. His singing and speaking voices are similar enough to Michael's that it's easy to suspend disbelief–especially when he delivers the glottal catches that were such a distinctive aspect of MJ's vocals.
As adolescent Michael, Brandon Lee Harris is somewhat less successful. His dancing is skilled enough, and he has a strong voice when singing in his own style, but when he tries to really imitate MJ's tone, it is nothing more than that–an imitation. But the biggest challenge to overcome in this show lands squarely in the lap of its youngest performer. Bane Griffith is an incredibly talented young singer and dancer, but how do you inhabit the character of someone who was already one of the world's most talented and popular performers at the age you are now?
Perhaps the strongest element of MJ–in addition to the powerful music and dancing–is the book created by book writer Lynn Nottage, a fantastic playwright, and the direction by Christopher Wheeldon, who also choreographed the show.
The story begins as Michael is preparing for his "Dangerous" tour. Following the unparalleled success of "Thriller," the best-selling album of all time, Michael is under a lot of self-inflicted pressure to top himself. Despite warnings from his tour manager Rob (Devin Bowles, who also plays Michael's father Joe) and business manager Dave (Matt Loehr) over the expensive additions he wants to make to the show (new costumes, a toaster lift), perfectionist Michael insists his vision for the tour cannot be compromised, and he's willing to risk his fortune to make it happen. When they try to pooh-pooh one of his requests, he tells them if he doesn't use it, "God will give this idea to Prince."
The addition of a video crew from MTV offers the opportunity for some needed exposition to be presented in an organic way, with Michael being interviewed for a documentary as he rehearses for the tour. This thread neatly weaves its way through the show, and thanks to Wheeldon's brilliant staging choices, we are able to jump back and forth through time while never feeling lost.
Michael Jackson had a troubled life: an abusive, demanding father, an on-set accident that caused serious burns and chronic pain, and–most famously–allegations of child sexual abuse. In MJ, these issues are given mostly passing glances. We see one instance of Joe striking Little Michael–after which his mother tells him his father's intensity "may not feel like love now, but it is"–and the show seems to suggest the person who was hardest on Michael was Michael himself. As for the charges of pedophilia, these are given only the barest of references. There's a minor mention of "do you know what they're saying about me?," and when he performs "They Don't Care About Us," the supporting dancers are in black trench coats with lining composed of strips of fabric imprinted with segments of tabloid headlines.
Overall, MJ is filled with energy, color and joy, and is told with such economy and elegance of dramatic construction that I'm calling it one of the best musical biographies I've seen. Only Jersey Boys may top it for me. Yes, it's probably an insurmountable challenge to represent the full range of talent that made Michael Jackson the King of Pop, but the creators and cast of MJ are to be lauded for coming as close as they have.
MJ runs through February 25, 2024, at SHN's Orpheum Theatre, 1182 Market Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $60.50 - $325.50. For tickets and information, please call 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com. For more information on the tour, visit tour.mjthemusical.com.