Ever since I was a little girl, one of my biggest bragging rights was that I had the same birthday as Michael Jackson (he was five years older). As such, I always felt a certain kinship with the man who eventually became “the King of Pop,” enjoying his continued success for decades to come along with the rest of the world.
So, of course, I was overjoyed during my recent trip to Vegas to not only see Cirque Du Soleil’s “Michael Jackson ONE,” taking residency exclusively at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, but to also get a special backstage tour to talk to some of the performers and see first-hand how they brought Jackson’s magic and music to life.
THERE IS ONLY “ONE” KING OF POP
Like all Cirque Du Soleil shows (this, the newest of the eight currently running in Vegas), “Michael Jackson ONE,” the first large-scale production developed for the theater about Jackson’s world and music and developed in a 50/50 partnership with Jackson’s estate, is an elaborate, multifaceted tableaux of scenes, characters and themes that delightfully thrust the audience through a dramatic, all-encompassing, sensory journey chronicling Jackson’s creative genius, transformative music, masterful lyrics, heart-stopping dancing and eternal legacy.
The production is guided by Jackson himself as the narrator, a conscious effort I was told, because only Michael Jackson can portray Michael Jackson. The only exception to this was one live guitar performance and appearances by vocalist Valerie Kimani, who portrayed Ngame, the Mother Moon Goddess.
“It’s intimidating because Michael Jackson was larger than life and I could be scared of it or let it inspire me,” said Kimani. “I got to ad lib a little and create something that touches people, so it’s different every night and a very internal process.”
IT DOESN’T MATTER IF YOU’RE BLACK OR WHITE
Jackson truly believed and demonstrated through his life and work that all people are unique and equal, regardless of race or culture. This multicultural inclusion is evident throughout the production’s energetic cast of 72 performers and over 100 crew members hailing from 18 different countries.
In fact, many of them worked with the late entertainer over the years, including writer and director Jamie King, who began his career as a dancer on Jackson’s “Dangerous World Tour” and also directed the arena touring show “Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour” by Cirque du Soleil.
It’s the palpable, fundamental principal underscoring every element of the show, from using the same company that made Jackson’s fedora hats for the fedoras in the show, to paying tribute to his love of Swarovski crystals by incorporating over 7,000 of them on the costume worn for “Dirty Diana.”
To fully immerse the audience in the sound environment of the show, the artistic team created a unique audio setting, with multiple speakers integrated into each of the 1,804 seats, providing a unique, surround sound feel, almost as if one were standing in the middle of the stage.
The visual elements are stunning as well, including 26 video projectors, a 40-foot wide, 30-foot high LED wall and, overhead, two 96-foot tracks to literally zoom the artists over the audience during certain numbers.
LOOKING AT THE MAN IN THE MIRROR
There was literally something going on everywhere you looked, at every moment, from the aisles to the stage, side walls and ceiling. The emotions these elements were designed to evoke surfaced in the audience, as well as in the performers.
According to Sonseeahray “Yoda” Jones, one of the dancers, “The show is not just about dancing. Michael had a lot of stylized movements, and when bringing to the stage such a beloved character, the audience cries. Michael always started at 100 percent, and we have to live up to that two times a day and respect that.”
The costuming—some 1,150 pieces—is nothing short of spectacular, grouped into two distinct looks and aesthetics: Jackson’s world, representing light with white, light tones and rainbow colors and the dark underworld of the nemesis character portrayed with black, red and navy. The effects are dramatic, engaging and soul stirring, like all of Jackson’s work.
For Jon “Boogz” Smith, who portrays one of the “Tabloid Junkies,” landing a spot in the production was an unbelievable dream come true.
“I spent 10 years as a professional dancer, and when I lived in L.A., I was a street performer in Venice, six days a week, 10 hours a day,” he told me. “I had set up a solo ‘Man in the Mirror’ show along the boardwalk in Venice, and so many people liked it. A friend convinced me to submit it to Cirque, and bingo, I was hired.”
In terms of conceptualizing what Jackson means to a global audience, Smith said, “I have a lot of respect working with so many amazing artists and the many people that worked with Jackson, so the show really has that authenticity of him.”
REMEMBER THE TIME
It is definitely hard to pick which were my favorite tableaus, each evoking memories of where I was at any given time in my life, from “The Vortex” and “Time Tripping,” inspired by “Beat It,” to “Smarty-Pants & the Hat” coupled with “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “Hide & Seek” for “Leave Me Alone,” “The Warriors of Peace” through “They Don’t Care About Us” and “Mephisto Triumphant” for the classic “Thriller” (complete with Vincent Price’s memorable laugh emanating around the room and ultimately ending in the speaker in the back of my seat), among numerous others.
But together, Cirque du Soleil’s “Michael Jackson ONE” is an epic, unforgettable theatrical adaptation of the world’s greatest entertainer, who, through his life and legacy, united not only a nation, but the global consciousness.
Perhaps Jackson said it best when he said, “We’re putting love back into the world. To remind the world that love is important. To love each other. We are one.”
Lysa Allman Baldwin is a freelance writer and the publisher and editor of Amazing Escapades, offering “adventures for the mind, bod and belly” ( HYPERLINK “http://www.amazingescapades.com/”www.amazingescapades.com).