Arts

Review: ‘MJ’ Avidly Revisits the King of Pop’s Thrilling & Tumultuous Heyday

Roman Banks as MJ with the cast of the first national tour of "MJ The Musical." Photo by Matthew Murphy

Since making its delayed Broadway debut in December 2021 due to the pandemic, the first national tour of MJ The Musical has premiered in Los Angeles to much fanfare and repeated standing ovations at the Pantages Theatre where it will play through Sunday, January 28th.

The production, created in partnership with the Estate of Michael Jackson, fervently highlights how colossal of a powerhouse the Gloved One was in his halcyon days, irrespective of the controversy that would shortly follow; in effect, the argument can be made that nobody’s star has ever shone brighter in pop culture. With two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage penning the introspective script and Christopher Wheeldon providing seamless direction and choreography, a jaw-droppingly talented cast travels through time and space, covering three eras of Jackson’s life. MJ The Musical, like Moulin Rouge! and Mamma Mia!, is a jukebox event that appeals to casual theatregoers as much as it does to musical theatre aficionados.

Devin Bowles as Rob and Roman Banks as MJ in the first national tour of MJ The Musical. Photo by Matthew Murphy

The audience is introduced to MJ as he rehearses for the 1992 Dangerous World Tour where he ceaselessly thinks of how he can push the creative envelope even if his ideas are inviable or crushingly cost-prohibitive. On the scene is an MTV documentarian, Rachel, and her cameraman Alejandro who have been granted permission to gain insight into the man behind the mythology (note: while there was an actual MTV video diary of the tour, this narrative device is mostly fictitious). Questions by Rachel and memories evoked by practicing the set list transport observers back to the icon’s origins when Little Michael and (teenaged) Michael are depicted as being at odds with an exacting father, Joseph, the reputed main source of MJ’s fears and insecurities. An addiction to pills (not particularly delved into) and an unrelenting media brigade further beleaguer MJ, who, as a victim of his upbringing, has maladaptively equated recognition with love, focusing exclusively on music to drown out the noise, to the extent that he can be his own worst enemy in forcing his goals to fruition.

While the four-time Tony Award-winning bio-musical is understandably sanitized in telling Jackson’s story, it does touch on answers pertaining to inner demons as a performer who refused to rest on his laurels even as his health deteriorated. It is an arc that wavers between a drama earning the audience’s empathy and propulsive numbers underscored by raw vocals and intensely poetic dance sequences that grip the soul.

Roman Banks as MJ and Mary Kate Moore as Rachel in the first national tour of MJ The Musical. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Smoothly leading the charge among the cast is Roman Banks as MJ, who represents the era from Thriller to the musical’s “present-day.” Banks is an electrifying revelation as a visual spitting image, clad in a highly recognizable fedora hat, black pants, and unbuttoned dress shirt as he effortlessly glides across the stage, moonwalking, kicking, and manipulating his shoulders, all the while dazzling with borrowed vocal quirks so accurate they’re indistinguishable from the fallen musician’s recordings; in fact, the astonishment only rises with every pitch-uncanny growl, grunt, hiccup, and “ow!” Not to mention, the soft-spoken nature of Jackson comes through believably via Banks who compels with his spoken dialogue as much as he does with his emotionally powerful renderings (i.e., “Keep the Faith,” “She’s Out of My Life”) and on-your-feet smash hits (i.e., “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “Billie Jean” — a move-for-move mirror image of Jackson’s indelible performance at Motown 25). Although there are others in the world who impersonate MJ just as effectively, Banks is thoroughly authentic.

Banks’ younger Michael counterparts are hugely impressive as well. Josiah Benson is an exceptionally advanced vocalist and dancer — for any age — grooving with “ABC” and “I’ll Be There,” the latter with Anastasia Talley’s Katherine Jackson who not only does the timeless ballad justice but later steals the show during “Man in the Mirror” in Act II. In addition, Brandon Lee Harris emotes the young-adult version of Michael with oodles of charisma with the other growing members of the Jackson 5 before underscoring the phenom’s desire to break free with the liberating Off the Wall.

Josiah Benson as Little Michael and Anastasia Talley as Katherine Jackson in the first national tour of MJ The Musical. Photo by Matthew Murphy

No matter the stage of life he was in, what terrorized Michael the most were the recollections of his punishing father who insisted on flawlessness and had no qualms about achieving his aims. Portraying Joseph Jackson is Devin Bowles who additionally inhabits Rob, the tour manager, who not only has to navigate MJ’s many requests but liaise the filming of the MTV documentary with Mary Kate Moore’s pressing but respectful Rachel and Da’von T. Moody’s starstruck Alejandro. Bowles gives the most underrated performance as he shifts numerous times between Joe and Rob, sometimes mid-line and without a single misstep. Perhaps drawing on a comparison between authority figures in Jackson’s life, the side-by-side comparison across the peregrinating premise is a sight to behold.

Furthermore, Jalen Lyndon Hunter makes for an enjoyable-to-watch Little Marlon; Josh A. Dawson pivots slickly between Tito Jackson and the influential Quincy Jones, who solidified the King of Pop’s musicianship; J. Daughtry commands reverence as Motown founder Berry Gordy; and Matt Loehr delivers as Dave, Michael’s concerned but ultimately willing-to-satisfy accountant.

Brandon Lee Harris as (teenaged) Michael with the cast of the first national tour of MJ The Musical. Photo by Matthew Murphy

As much as the saga of MJ rides and slides on the penny loafers of its cast, the production is a spectacle like the real-life figure was, relying substantially on Derek McLane’s eye-catching sets, Natasha Katz’s epic lighting, Peter Nigrini’s detailed projections (including a mind-blowing dance routine choregraphed in time with projected dancers), Paul Tazewell’s through-the-eras costumes, Charles G. LaPointe’s wig and hair and Joe Dulude II’s makeup (which credibly turn Banks and cast into MJ and the Jacksons), David Holcenberg’s ingenious musical arrangements (e.g., overlaying lyrics of “Earth Song” on top of the beat for “They Don’t Care About Us”), and the rocking Victor Simonson-led orchestra (half on stage and half in the pit). Certainly, there is no shortage of things to marvel at in tandem with the pulse-galvanizing rhythms of Jackson’s catalog.

When all the elements coalesce, backed by a top-tier ensemble, they yield a memorable “Thriller” short film on stage with the undead as smoky red haze wafts underneath. Other spectacular efforts include “Human Nature,” featuring the letters spelling “Hollywood” being almost magically rearranged, and a monumental “Smooth Criminal” escapade inside a neon sign-lit alleyway. For those who remember Michael Jackson’s journey as it was transpiring, MJ serves as a nostalgic wallop to the happily receptive senses; and for those who were too young to recall, the musical might introduce them to indisputably catchy melodies ushered by its most impassioned proponent.

Roman Banks as MJ with the cast of the first national tour of MJ The Musical. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Challenged by only Taylor Swift in modern times, Michael Jackson may be the greatest entertainer who ever lived — a statement confirmed by both critical plaudits and commercial receipts. To be fair, MJ The Musical is idealized and sidesteps the complete chronicle of an inscrutable individual who battled an increasingly tarnished image; however, it does pay due credit to a forerunner of Black artists, a generous philanthropist specifically with the Heal the World Foundation, and hauntingly unfurls the layers of a psyche cobbled through years of verbal and physical abuse. Just as his father demanded perfection to the detriment of a healthy balance, MJ similarly absorbed the toxic philosophies that impelled him towards immortality yet also became the reasons for his undoing. Michael’s greatest fear was that he would be forgotten; this sparklingly spry musical and the continued playlisting of his music ensures that, for better or worse, his legacy will live on forever.

The first national tour of MJ The Musical ends its run at the Pantages Theatre on Sunday, January 28th. For tickets and more information about this engagement, please visit broadwayinhollywood.com. From March 19th through the 31st, MJ The Musical will play at the Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa. For further details on that run, visit scfta.org.

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