I took myself over to the Neil Simon Theater last night to see “MJ,” The Michael Jackson musical. It opens February 1st so this is not a review, it’s just notes from the show.
I checked the Ticketmaster site and saw that there were plenty of tickets. Indeed, i bought one at the window an hour before showtime. I’d been told that even though advance sales were iffy, there was a lot of walk up business. I was skeptical about that but the evidence was there. On a freezing cold night, with the pandemic hovering, and snow in the forecast, there were people online at the box office.
I bought a cheap seat in the mezzanine, but the nice lady in the box office moved me down a few roles. (Thanks!) The young woman who sells the merchandise downstairs told me sales were good. “People really like it,” she said.
An hour earlier, I had a bite to eat down the street at the Cosmic Diner, one of my favorite spots in the theater district. It was fairly empty, not what you’d expect on a Thursday night before theater. When I told the host I was seeing “MJ,” he told me a lot of the cast came in and out and that he really liked them, he could tell it must be a good show.
“MJ” is written by Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage and directed by Christopher Wheeldon. The sets are from Derek McLane, a Tony winner who is also married to the show’s producer Lia Vollack. (May I suggest they fix their Playbill so the names are larger and in bold face? They’re microscopic now.) These people are all heavy hitters, they’re at the top of the Broadway heap. They know what they’re doing.
There are three Michael Jacksons in this show: the adult circa 1991, played by Myles Frost, a teenager (Tavon Olds-Sample), and two kids playing Little Michael. I was hoping to see Walter Russell III, but I saw his alternate, Christian Wilson (who was very good). The book, by Nottage, is not linear. It jumps back and forth in time so sometimes Frost is on stage by himself, and often he and his younger selves are handing off to each other on stage,
The conceit is that MJ is rehearsing his “Dangerous” tour and that MTV has sent a documentary crew to record the action. This sounds plodding, but Nottage has used this device to let Michael essentially narrate his own life story up to that point.
“MJ” doesn’t go beyond these rehearsals. It’s a celebration of Jackson’s music from childhood through “Thriller,” “Bad,” and “Dangerous.” There’s some personal history and discussion of Michael’s growing addiction to pain killers because of the burns he suffered filming a Pepsi commercial. Michael is shown alternately as charming and demanding. He is also diffident on the subject of expenses. The one time Nottage grapples with harsh realities is when she shows an abusive and ambitious Joseph Jackson, who actually hits little Michael in the first fifteen minutes. She has to, we have to know what Michael is dealing with to get to this point in his life.
I was really knocked out by two of the supporting players, Ayana George– who plays Katherine Jackson– and Quentin Earl Darringon, alternately Joseph Jackson and Rob, the tour producer. They are standouts in a very talented company. The choreography is actually exciting, and you can tell that Wheeldon– whose wheelhouse is ballet– has worked to reimagine Jackson’s trademark dance moves so that this isn’t just a tribute show, it’s theater and dance on a very high level.
In the end, the whole show rests on Myles Frost, who’s got to sound like Michael Jackson without seeming like a Las Vegas impressionist, dance like him (which does not look easy), and convey a sympathetic character who we know, many years later, will meet a terrible end. Frost’s work here reminded me of Adrienne Warren’s Tony performance in the Tina Turner musical. There’s a reason why the audience– which was sparse– leapt to their feet at the end of the show.
“MJ” isn’t ready for an official opening yet, but it’s in good shape. If the Omicron doesn’t do any more damage, “MJ” could be a major hit. My only qualms: Berry Gordy did not discover the Jackson 5, that was Gladys Knight and Bobby Taylor. The current scenario has some girl coming to “BG” to tell him about them. Nottage has got to fix that. And I would urge the producers to look at the lyrics of “They Don’t Care About Us” and make some edits. While the staged number is impressive, the audience may not appreciate some of the sentiments. We never did.
But boy, it was great to be back in a theater and hear live music, see people on stage. If you wear a mask, and you have your proof of vaccination, you’re all set, and it’s very safe. And this is a good time to get into this show. After it opens, it may not be so easy.