Reviews

Review: ‘MJ the Musical,’ starting something at the Orpheum

a man in a white shirt and hat lifts his arms on stage
"MJ the Musical" looks at the life of the singer through his musical catalog.
Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

Michael Jackson died in 2009. But he remains so instantaneously recognizable that the playbill for the national tour of a Micheal Jackson jukebox musical — now playing at the Orpheum in Minneapolis — does not include his name, or even the show’s name, on its cover.

Instead, against a red background, it simply shows an ink sketch of Jackson, in a fedora hat and white glove, popping up onto his iconic toe stand.

Michael Jackson is still so famous that the appearance of the glove during the musical produces hoots, hollers and thunderous applause; I am convinced a fellow audience member wept on seeing it.

So a musical about his life was bound to happen.

“MJ the Musical” has a script from Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage, and her telling features flashbacks and dream-like sequences dramatizing Jackson’s turbulent life. The show is framed around an MTV crew shooting a documentary during the final days of rehearsal for Jackson’s 1992 “Dangerous” tour.  

Jamaal Fields-Green played the adult Jackson, referred to as “MJ,” for the performance I saw. The role is taxing, requiring the performer to sing like Jackson, move like Jackson and talk with Jackson’s iconic, giggling whisper. Fields-Green excels at most, although I don’t think anyone could master the King of Pop’s idiolect.  

In general, the cast is the musical’s strongest asset, and often its most ingenious element. Most of the performers play multiple characters, and this is purposeful — characters double each other, thematically and biographically.

For example, actor Devin Bowles plays both Jackson’s choreographer and his legendarily abusive father and manager, Joe Jackson. There are moments when Bowles, as the choreographer, suddenly stands like Joe, his voice shifts to Joe’s, and the adult Jackson tumbles into a flashback.  

These scenes are mostly built around Jackson’s most recognizable songs, and Nottage and director Christopher Wheeldon effectively use them to tell Jackson’s story.

But they also serve as massive spectacles, rivaling that of the King of Pop’s own concerts. Songs include “I Want You Back,” “Smooth Criminal” and “Beat It,” and they’re staged to showcase the talent of the ensemble. The cast is equally comfortable filling the stage with the mechanical robot dancing of Jackon’s “Soul Train era” and the angular, Fosse-inspired moves of his later work.

Along with being perhaps the most famous entertainer in history, Jackson was also tabloid fodder, and it’s impossible to stage Jackson’s life and ignore the many lurid stories told about him.

The play addresses some of these, including his pill addiction, plastic surgeon and accusations of skin bleaching.

But the show is set in 1992, which feels intentional: It was a year before allegations of child sexual abuse were made public.

It’s difficult to distill the life of a public figure into a two-act stage play, especially one filled with musical numbers. The show’s creators will necessarily be forced to pick and choose what stories they tell.

But “MJ” ends on the eve of something intrinsically linked to Jackson’s legacy. I’m still grappling with this. Especially since the show details Jackson’s own experience of abuse, which raises the specter of the accusations made against Jackson.

a man in a white shirt and backup dancers performs on stage
"MJ the Musical" is now playing in Minneapolis.
Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

When she started working on the play, Lynn Nottage told the Daily Mail that she found some of the accusations against Jackson to be credible.

When asked if the show’s producers would allow her to address the subject, she answered “I hope so … I think it would be a dishonor to the complexity of who he is and the situation [he was in] to gloss over everything. But how we do it, I don't know.”

They simply didn’t.

The show struggles with Jackson’s complexity in general, seeking to dramatize heavy moments in Jackson’s life while also feeling like an arena concert.

“MJ” struggles with these tonal shifts, and with the strange ellipses where it refuses to discuss parts of Jackson’s life altogether. But it succeeds magnificently in evoking the power of Jackson as a performer. The incredible dancing, the projections, the set and the lighting make you feel like you are a rider on a state-of-the-art theme park ride.

Ultimately, the show makes good on a promise that Jackson makes at the start of the play: He wants the focus of his story to be on his music.

But it leaves you wondering — should it have been?

MJ the Musical is currently playing at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis through May 26. 

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.
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