After attending the opening night “MJ: The Musical”’ I must say, Lynn Nottage is one of the most consequential playwrights of our time! “MJ: The Musical” reveals the heart and soul of the “man in the mirror.” She gives the audience an in-depth look at the demons that tortured this musical, creative genius. She lets the audience see that Michael Jackson was hard working and completely dedicated to his creative process, but also was vulnerable, sensitive, troubled, experienced self-doubt and at times would retreat into a quirky and playful side.
Nottage gives us his many layers, from his being the seventh child in a family of nine children and the lead singer of the Jackson 5, to being controlled and physically and mentally abused by his father Joe Jackson. Joe Jackson always drilled into his children that they had to work hard and be better than anyone else if they were going to make it. Michael was constantly told he wasn’t good enough. But Nottage also shows the side of Michael that loved to perform, and you see him as someone who was like a sponge soaking up the styles of a variety of legendary dancers including the Nicholas Brothers, the Isley Brothers, Fred Astaire, and Bob Fosse. “I learned how to break down rhythms like a science” the character explains. He also styled himself after his singing idols like James Brown and Jackie Wilson. The audience sees the strong family dynamic that played a large role in Michael’s life, first as a member of the Jackson 5, then his wanting to have a solo career and later going back and committing to a reunion tour to assist his family.
The musical takes you to 1992 and a rehearsal studio in Los Angeles where Michael and his backup singers and dancers are preparing for the Dangerous Tour. Before the musical official starts you see musicians and dancers come onto the stage and warm up with exercises and practice moves. There is a feeling of energy in the air and a cameraman is videotaping it all. When Michael comes on stage he and the dancers go right into “Beat It!” Following the number Michael tells the musicians how to make the music stronger, with more of an edge and you see his creative mind at work. A crew from MTV is there to film the process of them getting ready for the tour, an idea that the superstar is not comfortable with at first because he’s been the target of the press so often, but he agrees to do, just so they focus on the music.
Michael begins to tell his story to the MTV crew which consists of Rachel and her cameraman Alejandro. This is the perfect set up to bring in all of the personal and musical history of the King of Pop and also to perform all the songs that Michael Jackson is known and loved for from his youth as the lead singer of the Jackson 5 to his superstar solo career. The musical numbers are showstoppers! This musical took me back to my childhood and the beloved songs like “ABC.” We’re allowed to see what was happening behind the scenes as this talented young artist was doing these stunning performances, he was being told that he wasn’t good enough by his father and being struck when he didn’t perform up to his father’s standards. It was said that Joe was hard on them because he loved them. His father put a doubt and fear in Michael Jackson that stayed with him throughout his life. He also made Michael insecure about his looks. It is beautiful to see the loving, supportive and tender relationship that Michael had with his mother Katherine. One of the most tender moments in the musical is when the adult Michael reflecting on a moment with his mother does a duet of “I’ll Be There.” The harmonies were spectacular and the audience leap to their feet with a standing ovation!
We get to see Michael as a kind, caring, giving person whose message was that we have to find a way to be more loving to each other. His Dangerous Tour was actually being done as a fundraiser for his charity Heal The World. As they rehearsed, the costumes, sets and make-up are incredible! You also see Michael in three stages of his life as young Michael, middle Michael and adult Michael. Each performer comes to the stage and poignantly delivers this character with a sincerity, depth, emotion, commitment and style!
The audience sees Michael Jackson as someone who got inspiration from everywhere and once he had an idea he was committed to it happening no matter the cost and financial strain on himself. It is fantastic to watch how Michael learned to use every part of himself to make the music. You could literally see the adult Michael feeling the instruments as they played. He showed the joy and the pain in his life through the music. The songs are reminiscent of the Michael so many of us cherished, “Bus Stop,” “I Can’t Help It,” “Dancing Machine,” but it’s what happens after different performances that is troubling. You realize that when Michael Jackson was in “The Wiz” movie he felt a freedom that he wasn’t accustomed to. We see his frustration of being ignored by the Grammy Awards until finally after “Thriller” he won 8 Grammy Awards and becomes the first Black artist to conquer MTV. For songs like “She’s Out Of My Life” you experience how the singer feels the song and it guides him through the emotion. Demonstrating the beautiful, creative imagination of Michael is a glorious scene to the song “Human Nature.” The costumes, the choreography—stunning! When he performs “Bad” he had the entire theater rocking! None of us could or wanted to escape “the Thriller”! That was one of the most dynamic numbers in the musical. The make-up was off-the-charts as were the special effects. “Thriller” received a well-earned Standing Ovation! One of the most memorable numbers that shows self-reflection is when young, middle and adult Michael, along with the cast perform “Man In The Mirror”! Oh my God! I agree with something that adult Michael said, “that feeling being onstage and making music was like catching the holy spirit in church. It felt like love.” And believe me we were all in love with this touching, poignant, revealing, caring musical that let the world see the tenderness, compassion, and suffering that this music icon went through. This musical also sheds light on the biggest misinformation that was out there about Michael Jackson’s skin issues.
The cast is SUPERB! It’s also incredible to note that many are making their Broadway debuts! Myles Frost is making one of the most impressive debuts ever! He embodies Michael Jackson–not only through a magnificently soft speaking voice, but an incredible vocal instrument and his dance moves are to die for! Christian Wilson is extraordinary in his Broadway debut as young Michael at the opening night performance I attended. The other young man, also making his Broadway debut, Walter Russell III demonstrated marvelous moves at the curtain call as young Michael. Tavon Olds-Sample is delightful in his debut as middle Michael and a few other roles. Ayana George gives a touching performance as Katherine Jackson, Michael’s mother and is making an incredibly phenomenal Broadway debut. Quentin Earl Darrington was perfect as Joseph Jackson, but also as Rob working with Michael on the Dangerous Tour. The ensemble is absolutely stupendous, but unfortunate too many people to name in this review.
The genius of Michael Jackson is placed on the stage by a tremendous creative team. The brilliant Lynn Nottage, who always makes it her mission to tell our stories with heart, humor, distinction and flair, outstanding choreographer and director, Christopher Wheeldon, who manages to capture and present what signature moves and talent we all want to see when it comes to the King of Pop. The story also flows seamlessly between the telling, songs and dancing. There’s also the gorgeous, elaborate costumes by Paul Tazewell as well as impressive makeup by Joe Dulude II.
You better Beat It to the Neil Simon Theatre at 250 W 52nd Street and see “MJ: The Musical”. Look at the Man In The Mirror and tell me what you see!
Visit www.mjthemusical.com for more info.