Theater: “MJ on Broadway”
Michael Jackson was one of the most significant cultural figures of the 20th century. He sold over 400 million records, won 13 Grammy Awards, 26 American Music Awards, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Vocal Hall of Fame three times.
Thus, any play that attempts to lionize such a musical icon cannot be run-of-the mill. I am happy to report that “MJ,” at the Neil Simon, is stratospheres above ordinary. My only question is why it took so long to come about.
Perhaps the answer is getting the right combination of elements together at just the right time. In this case, these elements include the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Lynn Nottage who wrote the book, and Tony-Award-winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, who was the genius behind “An American in Paris” several years ago and currently serves as Artistic Associate of the Royal Ballet.
“MJ” is set in 1992, as MJ is rehearsing for his worldwide “Dangerous” tour. (“On four continents!” he cries!) His backup dancers, one more ripped than the next, share the stage with him, seemingly exhausted by his incessant demands to “run through it one more time.” MJ’s long-suffering manager Rob (Quentin Earl Darrington) and his accountant Dave (Joey Sorge) are equally dismayed—by his demands to change up the set order and his desire to add special effects that will blow the budget to smithereens.
Meanwhile, Rachel, a reporter from MTV (Whitney Bashir) and her cameraman (Gabriel Ruiz) are also on hand to interview him for an upcoming behind-the-scenes documentary. They soon become aware of his dependence on pills “and rumors of other allegations” which naturally MJ’s people are eager to squelch.
This interview structure allows the play to flash back to MJ’s days in the Jackson Five, and to showcase his hits—from “Thriller” and other albums—with great energy. (Thank you again, Christopher Wheeldon.) They allow us to meet his hard-driving stage-father Joe (also played by Darrington) as well as fellow icons and mentors like Berry Gordy (Antoine Smith) and Quincy Jones (Apollo Levine).
Getting the right actor to play a complex character like MJ could not have been easy. In this case, it took four actors, representing Michael at different ages. These include Aramie Payton, the grownup Michael who starred in our show. Such performers not only need to resemble MJ physically, and sing and moonwalk like him, but capture his other-worldly, childlike way of speaking.
The glaring omission in “MJ,” as you may have read, is any discussion of the scandals which plagued MJ in later life and all of which he was acquitted. If you want to see these rumors rehashed, you can watch a dozen
Toward the end of the evening, just when you think you’ve heard every Michael Jackson hit and applauded until your hands hurt, the stage grows dark. Mysterious shadows appear, followed by dazzling red lights, followed dramatically by the first unmistakeable notes of “Thriller.” It is a spectacular moment—the kind that telegraphs for all intents and purposes that “Broadway is Back.” Should you seek a reason to get yourself back, you won’t find a better vehicle than “MJ.”