By Lucy Komisar
Lynn Nottage, who wrote the book for “MJ,” is known for serious plays about the black experience, and this fits that bill as a struggle against the system. Director Christopher Wheeldon, also the choreographer, is the perfect helmsman. The show is about movement and the choreography is powerful.
The dance pulsates, twists and jerks as if you were looking through a kaleidoscope. MJ – Michael Jackson played by the stunning Myles Frost — is dancing street funk. The music could outblast the subway, though you can’t always understand the lyrics, which appears to be accepted in the genre. Fans know the texts.
Frost does a brilliant portrayal of Jackson, his high-pitched papery thin voice, his twisting reedy body, his dark mood, his pop sound. He wears the iconic black jacket with gold brocade, tilted fedora, white socks. His looks and mannerisms are classic Jackson. His head moves in Egyptian style. He’s a mirror of the man.
My appreciation is as a non-rock fan who never listened to MJ, never saw his videos, never attended an MJ concert. I liked this show. And I take it for what it is: a jukebox musical with a few dozen songs and a lot of background about the difficulties of making it as a black man in the music business, dealing with a tyrannical sometimes abusive father, some problems with drugs.
It’s 1992 in a rehearsal studio in Los Angeles. Jackson is planning a four-continent Dangerous World Tour to promote his album of that name. He would spare no expense. As a self-proclaimed perfectionist, he demands more and more exotic trappings. Rob (Quentin Earle Darrington) his business manager / producer says they don’t have the money for his lavish ideas.
We also get a jukebox documentary of his life. The kid listening to the greats of rock and roll and R&B. His crunched-up face at “Soul Train.” The domineering father, also played by Darrington, who ran The Jackson Five, Michael and his brothers. Entertaining at Harlem’s Apollo on amateur night. Signing with MoTown at 16. Tavon Olds-Sample is good as the youthful singer who already has star quality.
He frets that he didn’t get on white stations, just R&B. But he did the scarecrow in “The Wiz.” Then the new sound and moves take hold. “Best pop vocalist” over and over. He got eight Grammies.
Meanwhile, Rachel (Whitney Bashor) a video reporter doing a documentary piece, wants to get at what makes him tick. She eavesdrops into a revelation about the drugs. That was par for the music business. He will explain that he got hooked on Demerol taken for pain after fire burned his hair while he was doing a Pepsi commercial.
No doubt about his magical talent. He does terrific homage to dancers Fred Astaire (Darius Wright in the performance I saw) and Bob Fosse (Ryan Vandenboom). The show stopper shows him as a god in gold lamé.
The story tells us a bit of how the live music industry works, including dealing with the stars, handling the multi millions of costs. But most of the audience just wants MJ to sing and move. The only downside of such a show is the screeching from a handful who think they are at a rock concert. I wanted to tell them, “There is a show on the stage and you are not in it!”
The Danger tour ran from June ‘92 to November ‘93, with 69 sold-out performances in Asia, Latin America and Europe. Jackson returned just in time to deal with dangerous allegations. The Los Angeles Police Department in 1993 had begun investigations into his alleged sexual abuse over the years of four boys. That apparently started in the mid-80s when Jackson, born 1958, was in his late 20s. He settled two cases. Nottage (and the video reporter) do not deal with those facts. Should she have at least mentioned it? Probably if she wanted this to be a full-fledged biodrama. But in accord with the Jackson estate, she focused on his musical life. More than that would have been a different show for a different audience.
Taking that a logical step further in these times, should Jackson and the recognition of his talent be erased, “cancelled,” because of what persuasive testimony says he did? Posthumously? Even critics of the script aren’t saying that. It’s a dangerous slope once you get on it.
“MJ.” Book by Lynn Nottage, directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. Neil Simon Theater 250 W. 52nd St. NYC. 800-745-3000. Runtime 2hrs30. Opened Feb. 1, 2022. Open Run. Masks optional. #MJtheMusical, @MJtheMusical. Review on NY Theatre-Wire.