Theater Review: The Michael Jackson Musical, ‘MJ”

Director Christopher Wheeldon's choreography bristles with energy, especially with the big 'Thriller' number towards the end of the show.

Roman Banks in MJ the Musical National Tour

MJ, the new Michael Jackson musical, has just moon-walked into the San Diego Civic Theatre, bringing with it some incredibly talented performers who will absolutely knock your socks off.

The jukebox musical, directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon with a book by Lynn Nottage, takes some of Jackson’s most famous (and not-so-famous) songs and intertwines them to tell the story of his upbringing and battle to become the King of Pop. Set in a rehearsal room as he and his crew prepare for his 1992 Dangerous Tour, we get to see his backstage process of working out his dance moves, finding the right transitions and set design… which includes his dream of flying above the audience at one point.

As a pair of MTV reporters interview throughout, we get to witness some pivotal moments in his life like his time with the Jackson Five, his decision to go solo, finding his groove with Quincy Jones and how his family coerced him into the Jackson 5 Victory tour. We also watch as his father, Joe, was a terrible tyrant to him for most of Jackson’s life.

As MJ, Roman Banks is terrific. He could have easily done an impression of Jackson and be totally fine, but there was never a time that he didn’t look, feel and sound like the Michael Jackson we’re all familiar with. He even intersperses tiny dance moves throughout the show while having conversations with other characters. It’s those small, tiny moments like that that make his performance so fun to watch.

Brandon Lee Harris plays Michael, the younger version from his ‘Bad’ and Victory tour years. We see this version first as a unsure, hesitant young man who’s just left his Jackson 5 nest to growing into the confident and supremely sure-of-himself, MJ. Harrison’s seamless performance is great and there’s no point where you can’t see how he morphs into Banks’ MJ.

Another standout is Devon Bowles, who plays the dual role of Jackson’s father, Joe, and Rob, the production manager of the Dangerous tour. As Rob, he’s a caring man who has MJ’s back. There isn’t a doubt in anyone’s mind that he doesn’t care for him and his well-being. As Joe, he’s the polar opposite. Joe is in it for himself and he she’s only looking up for number one, Joe Jackson. Bowles has some very cool transitions where he’s talking to MJ as Rob and with his next sentence, turns into the menacing Joe.

Wheeldon’s choreography bristles with energy, especially with the big ‘Thriller’ number towards the end of the show.

The show, which was nominated for 10 Tony Awards including Best Musical, won four awards, including Best Actor in a Musical for Myles Frost, as well as Best Choreography, Best Lighting Design and Best Sound Design. But, I do wish Nottage’s book fleshed things out a bit more. We don’t really find out anything new about Jackson that even the most casual fan wouldn’t know. The only real tension we get is from his father Joe and that my comes and goes throughout the story. It tries to add some drama about how the Dangerous tour is going to cost so much money that he’s going to have to mortgage his beloved Neverland ranch, but the stakes don’t feel high enough to make them feel as important as it should have been. If not for the standout performers, the show could have easily been less than what it is now, which is a super fun and at times high energy walk down memory lane.

MJ, THE MUSICAL is currently playing at the San Diego Civic Theatre. For more info and tickets: Broadway San Diego

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