First, the good news: Making his Broadway debut playing Michael Jackson as an adult, Myles Frost is exceptional, a shoe-in for The Tony Award. The actor dances (and moonwalks) beautifully, emulating Jackson’s slice-the-air moves and animal grace. Vocals are delivered in a high flannel voice (his own?) reminiscent of the icon right down to inflection. Additionally, the artist acts with subtlty, heart, and perfect timing. Bravo.
The book, by Lynn Nottage is excellent. We see the star discovered (with Berry Gordy of Motown Records – Antoine L. Smith), being subject to his violent, domineering father (Quentin Earl Darrington), performing with his brothers (who get short shrift) and with preternatural self awareness, going out on his own (with producer Quincy Jones – Apollo Levine.)
Quentin Earl Darrington and Myles Frost
It’s 1992. Jackson and company are preparing for the worldwide solo concert Dangerous Tour, 70 performances with profits donated to various charities including his own “Heal the World Foundation.” The tour would run from June 27, 1992 to November 11, 1993 grossing one hundred million dollars, but landed the artist in the hospital due to exhaustion and unidentified pills.
We watch extreme perfectionist behavior as he injects new ideas into the program barely a week before they leave, pushing himself and the company beyond endurance, causing expenses to rise to a degree that necessitates mortgaging Neverland (his estate) rather than depriving audiences of what he considers the best and his charity of sizable contribution. Snippets of interviews with an on-site journalist named Rachel (Whitney Bashor) trailed by her videographer Alejandro (believable Gabriel Ruiz) often lead to flashbacks. Nottage even manages to fit in Jackson’s childlike playfulness in credible fashion. (Frost portrays this with charm and skill.)
Myles Frost and the Company
Unfortunately, most of the human story barely registers as it’s drowned (flailing and gasping for breath) in all encompassing, distracting, often flat out ugly video (Peter Nigrini) and almost equally dizzying lighting (Natasha Katz). This is exacerbated by Derek McLane’s 3-D shattered glass background. (See photo – yes, there are actually people dancing.) The scenic designer’s Dangerous Tour framing is replicated, the rest of his work, pedestrian. It’s as if producers had no faith in the musical itself seeking to otherwise preoccupy. You can rarely see the forest for the trees.
As to costuming, the icon’s are familiar. Streetwear is fine. Dancers’ practice wear and, wait for it – the scene at Studio54 – a great occasion for imagination and flash – look drab and cheap. Background dancers on tour, doubling as representative of the Bob Fosse’s choreography, are wearing an amalgam of then and now that appears to be East Village spandex, fishnet and painter’s tape. Perhaps there was no budget left after video and lights.
Speaking of Bob Fosse, director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s evocation of his moves exhibit little that’s signature. The same is true of his Fred Astaire and Nicholas Brothers, the latter tap legends not even wearing tap shoes! (These are three of Jackson’s self-avowed influences.)
Myles Frost and the Company
While he did a splendid job with the ballet musical An American in Paris, Wheeldon is way out of his element here. The program thanks some of Jackson’s choreographers, “whose original work with Michael was an inspiration for” some production numbers… Inspired, maybe, but nowhere near as authentic as some of the terrific hip hop/Broadway tandems we’ve seen recently.
The fabulous Thriller video is evoked twice, once with half-realized visuals from the back and a second time where everyone wears masks and costumes except Jackson making it seem wrong every step of the way, despite recognition factor. (This does not, of course, keep an audience from screaming.)
Always reliable, Quentin Earl Darrington adds ballast and focus as he deftly morphs from playing Joe Jackson (Michael’s father) to Rob, the entertainer’s manager/ director. Ayana George as Michael’s mother Katherine is never given the opportunity to reflect character, impotently floating as she does from scene to scene.
Numbers will be familiar to a tried and true Jackson fan, though an excess is heard/seen, many shoe-horned in, most excerpted. Others are not worth disinterring. Needless to say, the only shadow over Jackson’s behavior is overuse of medication.
Photos by Matthew Murphy
M.J. – The Musical
Book by Lynn Nottage
Music and Lyrics by Michael Jackson
Directed by Christopher Wheeldon
Music director/orchestrations/arrangements -Jason Michael Webb
Music supervision/orchestration/arrangements – David Holcenberg
Neil Simon Theatre
250 West 52nd Street