fri 19/04/2024

MJ the Musical, Prince Edward Theatre review - glitzy jukebox musical with a superb star but a void inside | reviews, news & interviews

MJ the Musical, Prince Edward Theatre review - glitzy jukebox musical with a superb star but a void inside

MJ the Musical, Prince Edward Theatre review - glitzy jukebox musical with a superb star but a void inside

It's a great song and dance evening, but the story is an empty one

Myles Frost as MJ: a five-star performer with all the right movesJohan Persson

In a secret chamber somewhere, the producers of MJ the Musical may be keeping a portrait of the King of Pop that has acquired all his scars, physical and psychological.

Few of them, though, are on show in this version of the ongoing Broadway hit. The MJ we meet there is forever frozen in 1992, pony-tailed and dressed in sophisticated black and white. The first scene shows him in a rehearsal room, meticulously fine-tuning numbers for his Dangerous tour with a producer and a troupe of dancers. A young black boy whose mother can’t find a babysitter has accompanied her there. Jackson approaches him and sweetly sits him down to … Say what? Is this musical really going to take on the enormous and difficult baggage that a Jackson biography entails?

No chance. The allegations of paedophilia that would dog MJ for the rest of his life start arriving the following year, along with the nose collapse, the short marriages and the increasingly bizarre behaviour. The young boy in MJ’s opener (Ethan Sokontwe the night I went) will morph in flashbacks into his much younger self, linchpin of the Jackson Five, and picked on by their bullying, ambitious father, Joseph. As is conventional in origin musicals, we will watch him evolve into a star, but the curtain will come down long before he fades.

This lets the book present MJ as a heroic battler: against his dictatorial father, against record companies that won’t let him “be himself”, against a (white) business manager who wants to curtail his extravagances, and not least against those who would wreck the planet. Here is the Jackson who supported and founded charities for the advancement of young black people, the eco champion, the star paying the price of fame but never the Jackson whose behaviour would go on to tarnish his image. 

Myles Frost in MJThe audiences who will flock to see this show won’t want to see that anyway: they just want the sparkly showman back, in his trilby and aviators and white socks. And above all, they want the indelible music and Jackson’s body’s response to it – the robot dance, the moonwalking, the crotch-grabbing, the sheer pizzazz of it all. I think the producers could stage two hours of whole Michael Jackson numbers performed by this same cast, but with no narrative trimmings, and all the people there to relive their youth would go home happy,

But that’s not what is on offer. Instead, they have hired a double Pulitzer Prize winner, Lynn Nottage, to come up with the show’s book – the black writer of incendiary plays like Ruined, Sweat, Mlima’s Tale and Clyde’s – and apparently charged her to, um, whitewash its hero, while making space for medleys of a load of great songs, 43 in all, ranging from the early Jackson 5 hit “ABC” through “Thriller” to “Bad” and “Dangerous” (even “Climb Every Mountain” makes the cut). Then they spent squillions on stunning sets and lighting. But the piece is left with a void where a serious argument could be. It’s a jukebox musical that also wants to be a proper piece of theatre but ends up repeating the same inadequate refrain: MJ is paying the price of fame.

The piece crisscrosses its way through Jackson’s pre-1992 career – from escaping his father’s clutches for Berry Gordy (a strong-voiced Matt Mills) at Motown; then getting the Midas touch from the masterly Quincy Jones (Rohan Pinnock-Hamilton), who introduces him to the music of Sinatra; on to MJ planning the tour to beat all tours, Dangerous. Along the way we meet his abusive father (Ashley Zhanghaza, who also plays his Dangerous producer, Rob), his mother (a belting turn from Phebe Edwards) and the teenage Michael (Ashley’s very watchable younger brother, Mitchell Zhanghaza). 

The most interesting section for me was all too short: the one where the various dance gurus whose styles influenced Jackson are examined, from Fred Astaire and the Cotton Club's Nicholas Brothers to Bob Fosse, the master of cool jazzy moves with skewed legs and larky arm and hand positions. 

Christopher Wheeldon, who also directs, and in another world is a resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet, has had to conjure the near-impossible: choreography that echoes Jackson’s style but has its own signature. And to his credit he has done this, incorporating the lightning-fast spins, mercurial sliding footwork and crotch-led sashaying for MJ, and coming up with inventive, fluid moves for the excellent swing dancers, even larky arm and hand positions of his own. As a dance piece, this is a great evening, especially the Thriller funfair section in its sensational set. 

Myles Frost and company in MJMusically, too. It fields a strong team – even the reporter from MTV,  Rachel (Philippa Stefani), duets with MJ. She’s there to record a rare interview with him but is also a clunky means for Nottage to winkle out some back-story and challenge MJ with rumours of his dark secrets. These, though, turn out to be that he bleaches his skin, uses an oxygen tent and has had a nose job… who doesn’t in Hollywood, he sighs. 

But the greatest asset of the show is its superb star, Myles Frost, a Tony winner for the role. He has the fey little speaking voice down pat, as well as the strong singing one; he can do the slinky moves, the sudden jumps high off the ground, the endlessly fascinating hip swivels. He shows us MJ the admirable perfectionist, drilled into endlessly practising “turns” by a father who believed black boys had to be much better than white ones to get anywhere. This is a calm, purposeful MJ whose commitment to his act is unshakable, the consummate professional who wants what he wants, even if he has to mortgage Neverland, his great “sanctuary” – also his secret trysting place – to achieve it. 

When Frost is onstage, he rivets your attention; even his last entrance, kicking off the Dangerous tour, is a showstopper. But sadly the drama is not worthy of his five-star skills. For all that this musical tries to drop ambiguous hints about MJ’s “achievements” never being forgotten, or argues that he is fighting demons no mere mortals can understand and should be indulged and forgiven, MJ The Musical feels at best like special pleading, at worst, as a copout. 

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