Monday, May 2, 2022

Broadway Theater Review: MJ, the Michael Jackson Musical

Myles Frost and Cast. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

MJ
Book By Lynn Nottage
Featuring the music of Michael Jackson
Directed and Choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon

By Lauren Yarger
If you like the music of Michael Jackson and non-stop, amazing choreography by Christopher Wheeldon (An American in Paris), who also directs, you probably will like MJ, a musical detailing the staging of the pop legend’s Dangerous Tour.

If you are looking for a balanced telling of the troubled boy/man who was accused of sexually abusing young boys, the book from Pulitzer-Prize winner Lynn Nottage acquiesces to the sentiment spoken by Michael early in the production of his tour: “I want to keep it about my music.”  So the story tips in favor of creating sympathy for him and barley touches on the events which make us question whether this is really a person who should be glorified with a Broadway musical in the first place (presented by Lia Vollack and the Estate of Michael Jackson).

It is present day 1992 in the Los Angeles rehearsal studio (Scenic Design by Derek McLane; Lighting Design is by the always-excellent Natasha Katz) where Michael (played by Miles Frost in his Broadway debut) and his hardworking cast and crew are trying to put together dance routines and video footage that seems almost impossible for the time. He is switching up beats, leaving old standards behind and wanting to perform stunts like popping from a toaster (he does this in the production) and flying in a jet pack (disappointingly, he does not pull off this feat in the Neil Simon Theatre after talking about it often during the two hours and 40 minutes of the script….). The soaring expenses have his creative and financial managers urging him to use caution. But Michael wants to give his fans a show beyond their expectations, and he want to make sure Dangerous and the new songs will put him at the tops of the charts. He decides to mortgage his beloved sanctuary home, Neverland, to make it happen.

Sorry, but it is hard to feel too sorry for a man torn by the possible loss of the place where he is accused of abusing little boys. A scene at the beginning of the show where he beckons to a young boy (who turns out to be his younger self) and takes his hand also is kind of creepy. Leaving this out of the show doesn’t mean images have been erased from our minds. In another attempt to gain sympathy Michael explains that his change in skin pigmentation is due to a medical condition, not his desire to be whiter. Does it really matter since we’re not really doing a full biography here?

Interspersed (through dialogue, dance and songs – excellently directed, orchestrated and arranged by Jason Michael Webb along with David Holcenberg) are Michael’s memories growing up with a driven, abusive father, Joe (Quentin Earl Darrington plays both Joe -- very hard to understand him-- and Michael’s manager Rob -- no problems with elocution --, an enabling mother (Ayana George) and the rest of the jealous Jackson Five. (His sisters, by the way, don’t get a mention). Two younger versions of Michael are played by extremely well byTavon Olds-Sample and Walter Russell III and Christian Wilson.

The rehearsals are being filmed by MTV reporter Rachel (Whitney Bashor) and bumbling cameraman Alejandro (Gabriel Ruiz). She soon begins to wonder how dependent Jackson is on pills and picks up a very stressed vibe among all the people around Jackson in the room.

Frost is great. Looks, moves and sounds like Jackson (though that little boy, shy whisper is as annoying as it was in real life.) The show is packed with more than 40 of the singer’s tunes and some of his best dance moves. Costume Designer Paul Tazwell recreates the look, down to the sequined glove (which was auctioned after the show to benefit Equity Cares, Equity Fights Aids).

MJ plays at the Neil Simon Theatre (250 W 52nd St. NYC.

Additional credits:

Sound design by Gareth Owen, projection design by Peter Nigrini, hair and wig design by Charles Lapointe.

Additional casting:

Devin Trey Campbell as Little Marlon, Antoine L. Smith as Berry Gordy / Nick, Joey Sorge as Dave, Raymond Baynard as Randy Jackson / Ensemble, John Edwards as Jackie Jackson, Apollo Levine as Quincy Jones / Tito Jackson, Lamont Walker II as Jermaine Jackson / Ensemble, Zelig Williams as Marlon Jackson / Ensemble, with Kali May Grinder, Wonza Johnson, Oyoyo Joi, Carina-Kay Louchiey, Michelle Mercedes, Renni Anthony Magee, Ramone Nelson, Kyle R. Robinson, Aramie Payton, Kamille Upshaw, Ryan VanDenBoom, and Darius Wright rounding out the ensemble.

FAMILY-FRIENDLY FACTORS
-- suggestive moves
-- underworld theme of Thriller 

COVID PROTOCOLS
Proof of vaccination and masks are required.
 https://broadwaydirect.com/theatre-policies

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play concept, "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York in February 2018.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Intensive and other training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com. She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women. She is a former vice preseint and voting member of The Drama Desk.

She is a freelance writer and playwright (member Dramatists Guild of America). She is a member if the The Outer Critics Circle (event manager for the annual awards ceremony), The American Theater Critics Association, The League of Professional Theatre Women and the Drama League. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She also is a member of the Episcopal Actors' Guild, the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts and The O'Neill Theatre Center..

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.

Copyright

All material is copyright 2008- 2018 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com

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Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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