“With respect, I wanna keep this about my music,” Michael Jackson (Myles Frost) says near the start of “MJ The Musical.” And that’s what this show, opening tonight on Broadway, certainly does: There are some three dozen songs presented in 135 minutes, with exciting choreography by director Christopher Wheeldon built on Jackson’s signature moves, performed by an energetic ensemble and three different Michael Jackson impersonators – performing as the kid who started and starred in the Jackson 5; the teenager who broke out on his own with Off The Wall; and, most of the time, the King of Pop, who wowed the world with Thriller, Bad, Smooth Criminal and the moon walk.
But Michael is saying this in 1992 to a filmmaker named Rachel (portrayed by Whitney Bashor), who has been hired by MTV to document the process by which he is putting together the hugely ambitious “Dangerous” tour, which will travel to four continents. And Rachel is not content with just the music. “We’ve got the chance to get inside his head,” Rachel tells her cameraman.
And so, from the get-go, theatergoers understand that “MJ” will be telling a story. That story is written by Lynn Nottage, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winning playwright of “Ruined” and “Sweat,” and, most recently, “Clyde’s.” One doesn’t hire a book writer of Nottage’s caliber, and then go the Beatlemania/Rain/Let It Be route.
On the other hand, there is just so far even somebody like Nottage can go when “MJ” is “Produced by Special Arrangement with the Michael Jackson Estate; “ This may help explain why the focus is on 1992. The accusations of child molestation did not start until 1993. There is no direct mention of them in “MJ”
There are references to Michael’s “battling his demons,” and taking painkilling pills, and the strong suggestion that many of his problems were rooted in the way his father treated him.
But if “MJ” does get inside Michael Jackson’s head, it’s largely to explore his approach to his career and his creativity.
The framing of the show as a series of rehearsals for the 1992 Dangerous tour gives the excuse for most of the musical numbers. His interaction with his cast and his staff show him to be meticulous, extravagant, perfectionist – and stubborn, unwilling to accept no, no matter how impractical what he wants to do. “This opening came to me in a dream,” he tells the resistant concert director at one point, “and if we don’t do it, God’ll give this idea to Prince!”
Only a few songs are incorporated into the story. Katherine sings “I’ll Be There” to Little Michael to comfort him after his father Joseph hits him for refusing to practice more when he’s tired. Michael’s complaints about intrusive press are expressed twice – once in a medley of “Tabloid Junkie” and “Price of Fame,” and later, during a press conference where he’s barraged with aggressive questions (“Is it true that you bleach your skin?” ) he sings “They Don’t Care About Us.”
There is a largely chronological recap of his career up to 1992 through intermittent interviews with Rachel that can feel indistinguishable from the exchanges on late-night promotional infomercials:
Rachel: 41 million records and still counting. 8 Grammys. That’s gotta feel good.
Michael: Oh yeah, um, I’m just thankful that people liked Thriller.
Rachel: C’mon, you’re being modest, that album owned the charts for over a year, you were the first Black artist to conquer MTV. That’s huge.
Michael: Yeah, they had no choice, they had to play my videos. Folks demanded it.
More effective are the flashbacks cum reenactments, in which (ostensibly to answer Rachel’s questions), Michael ropes in people at the rehearsal to perform scenes from his past. So the tour dancers become the entertainers (James Brown, Jackie Wilson et al) whom he learned from as a child watching them on TV; they become his brothers in the Jackson 5; his concert director Rob (Quentin Earl Darrington) becomes his father Joseph, Kate (Ayana George) one of his dancers, becomes Katherine his mother, and his stage manager Nick (Antoine L. Smith) becomes Berry Gordy, the head of Motown.
This careful blending of the past with the present, of book scenes with musical numbers, of playacting and acting, drops away at the top of Act II, when we are treated to a more or less straight-ahead concert — recreations of Jackson’s most famous song-and-dance numbers, starting with Billie Jean, complete with the sparkling jacket, the jaunty fedora, the single glove and the moonwalk, at the 25th Motown anniversary. The stops are pulled out, including Derek McLane’s spectacular sets.
Myles Frost, who is making his Broadway debut, nails Michael Jackson’s gentle smile and his high-pitched speaking voice. If he comes off when he’s talking as something of a cypher, so did Michael Jackson. What counts is how exciting he is when he’s singing and, especially, dancing
“Is it really possible to separate your life from your music? “ Rachel asks Michael at one point.
“Hopefully my music will be what people hold onto, not this noise around it,” Michael Jackson answers. That’s what the producers of “MJ” must be hoping as well.
MJ the Musical
Book by Lynn Nottage
Directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon
Music orchestrated by David Holcenberg and Jason Michael Webb; Music arranged by David Holcenberg and Jason Michael Webb; Musical Director: Jason Michael Webb
Scenic Design by Derek McLane; Costume Design by Paul Tazewell; Lighting Design by Natasha Katz; Sound Design by Gareth Owen; Projection Design by Peter Nigrini; Hair and Wig Design by Charles LaPointe; arrangements by Jason Michael Webb.
Cast: Myles Frost in his Broadway debut as MJ, Quentin Earl Darrington as Rob / Joseph Jackson, Whitney Bashor as Rachel, Gabriel Ruiz as Alejandro, Walter Russell III and Christian Wilson as Little Michael, Tavon Olds-Sample as Michael, 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 / Ensemble, Ayana George as Katherine 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 r