Loud. LOUD. L O U D ! The most salient feature of MJ, the new Michael Jackson musical at the Neil Simon Theatre, is a sound level that blasts the music into the audience at a level that literally vibrates clothing, not helped by at least three blasts that precede a scintillating scene change. (Derek McLane did the scenery that explodes from drab rehearsal hall to Las Vegas glamorous.)
In the few moments when MJ’s high decibel level recedes, it whispers in the person of Michael Jackson doppelganger Myles Frost who delivers all his lines with a quiet intensity that belies the sensual energy of his copycat, iconic Jackson moves. These moves are adaptations by director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon (American in Paris) of the work of the original music video choreographers who are diplomatically listed in small print in the program notes. The Michael Jackson movement is specifically credited to Rich + Tone Talauega.
Wheeldon and Pulitzer Award-winning playwright Lynn Nottage make every effort to hide the fact that MJ is a jukebox musical, despite the fact that the first notes of every song elicited loud shouts and applause (part of the reason the show runs two and a half hours).
Nottage has invented a plodding framework for the show. It is 1992 in Los Angeles. TV reporter, Rachel (a down-to-earth Whitney Bashor who acts as the play’s Greek chorus) and her hyperactive assistant, Alejandro (a charming Gabriel Ruiz) corral a reluctant Jackson to have his rehearsals for his huge upcoming Dangerous tour documented.
Rob, Jackson’s tour director (a four-square Quentin Earl Darrington who also plays Michael’s tough-love father Joseph, switching between the roles with mind-blowing effortlessness) helps smooth their way.
Of course, apparitions of Jackson’s early life appear to show how Joseph brutalized his sons, the Jackson Five, to enable them to face the “real world.”
Jackson as a child is played by at the performance under review by Christian Wilson (who alternates with Walter Russell III). Wilson is chillingly perfect as the agile, high-voiced babe who was made old before his time. His sympathetic mother Katherine is played with warmth by honey-voiced Ayana George.
Singers who were contemporaries of the Jackson Five appear in flashes: Jackie Wilson, the Isley Brothers and James Brown, all played with energetic wit by ensemble members, helped by veteran Paul Tazewell’s dazzling costumes including replicas of Jackson’s famous leather jacket, bedazzled gloves and glittery outfits, all of which were greeted by vociferous applause.
Also included are tastes of the work of the inimitable choreographers and dancers whose work Jackson studied: Fred Astaire (an okay Kyle Robinson), the Nicholas Brothers (the so-so Michelle Mercedes and Zelig Williams) and Bob Fosse (a sensational Ryan Vandenboom).
The 25 songs are all familiar but given new life by the arrangements of Jason Michael Webb and David Holcenberg and the Wheeldon’s pacing.
Natasha Katz’s brilliantly complex lighting and Peter Nigrini’s particularly effective projection designs add substance to a show whose main theme is that music was all that the man/boy Michael Jackson lived for.
Taken as an entertainment MJ satisfies immensely, but as drama not so much. Any hint of emotion is sheltered by a landslide of fabulous theatrical tricks.
MJ (open run)
Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.mjthemusical.com
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission
A jukebox musical in the guise of the biography of a pop icon.