MJ the Musical

Poster for MJ the Musical

MJ is so “Bad” the show is actually good. Michael Jackson’s Youtube video of “Bad” has had $375 million views in 12 years!

After a string of formulaic hits, including Diana, Cher, Donna, Tina, it was thought – here we go yet again. Wrong. This production is not just about the artist himself, but profound issues plaguing our society today; media, journalism, addiction, abuse, perfection, self-image, family, and most of all, elusive unity.

A native of Washington D.C., Myles Frost as Michael Jackson, MJ, was believable speaking and dancing. He occasionally missed the lip-sync, a reminder of the Milli Vanilli duo–sometimes we heard MJ singing when Frost’s mouth was not moving.

“No more buts or maybes, practice saying yes, my favorite line in the dictionary,” Jackson says to his team at the beginning as they ramp up for the 1992 Dangerous World tour. We learn immediately that we are dealing with a demanding perfectionist. Taken behind the scenes, we see what goes into producing a show. In addition, Jackson is being filmed for a documentary, so we are also privy to Q&As that explore his humble roots in the same hometown as Harold Hill of The Music Man (which is co-currently running down the block), Gary, Indiana.

MJ posits, “what does it feel like to be set free?” As the rehearsal proceeds and memories surface, we realize how every minute of his MJ’s life is choreographed, but not always by him.

The documentary cameraman Alejandro (Gabriel Ruiz), during which could have been one of the most intimate moments exposing MJ says, “Shit. I ran out of tape.” The tension between the media and MJ is raw.

There are many memorable lines. During a discussion of the tour sponsored by Pepsi, an agitated MJ says, “I don’t even drink Pepsi.” He has not lost his playful, childlike qualities. Putting on a red nose, shooting people with water guns, and pretending to be a janitor, among other antics, reveals this side without saying a word. Sometimes it is the silence that speaks volumes to us within this production.

MJ’s mother, Katherine Jackson, played by Ayana George, vocally steals the show belting out songs and holding court as if we were at church. She has an extended vocal range that is commanding, soulful and transfixing.

It’s a white elephant in the room time: what is not said in the play is MJ’s child molestation allegations. Many people have written about and discussed this with the opening of MJ the Musical; however, allegations surfaced a year after the tour depicted in this play. In the Harvard graduate school of journalism, students learn to review what is presented – not editorialize on what one would have liked to have seen. Can everybody inhale deeply, suspend judgment, put aside the self-appointed role of judge and jury, and just enjoy a production for a moment for what it is? Can we not agree there are many perspectives to events and history written from various lenses? This show is designed based on Lynn Nottage’s script by which we are entertained. Editorialists should feel free to write and produce another play with their chosen storyline.

Author Lynn Nottage notes, “We are not journalists. Folks have to remember we’re theater artists that are examining the life of this very complicated artist. We can ask certain questions, but our job is not to answer those questions. My job is to reflect and interrogate and present.”

I look forward to more from Nottage, a Yale graduate enjoying her first operatic libretto simultaneously performed over at Lincoln Center, Intimate Apparel. She is known for her extensive research on anything she touches, taking years to complete her in-depth study on any topic to her satisfaction. I went crazy trying to hunt down her book MJ to realize that a “book” is the script both used interchangeably by the trade. She is the only woman to have received two Pulitzer Prizes in Drama for Ruined and Sweat plays.

The dialogue for this production is artful. Nottage posits that the media characterized MJ as a salacious individual. In MJ, Nottage notes that the press never asked MJ about some of the things on which they fixated. In response to rumors of slow pigment loss and skin bleaching, MJ states, “I have a rare pigmentation issue. I never wanted to be white, nor was I ashamed to be black.” This, among other allegations, is given clarity, and the audience feels sympathy for MJ as they hear his own words. He avoided the media and remained silent for years.

Jackson is a playful, soulful, dedicated artist as only Nottage could script. She humanizes MJ into a man to whom we relate and love. Even the skeptics in the audience paused to entertain something rare today – the other side of the story. Hearing MJ speak up for himself was powerful. Frost’s soft-spoken and demure manner made us lean in to hear what he was saying. His peaceful demeanor allures and provides the space to understand more than is simply stated.

There are no virtual backstage passes to scan in the MJ Playbill to get a digitally cast signed playbill as in SIX.

I have never seen such a diverse audience in my 55 years of attending Broadway shows. Everyone was enthralled and left with unity, love, and heartfelt peace. How can a show manage this? Attend a performance of MJ the Musical to discover the magic that only happens during a live theater performance -just what the doctor ordered for the world at this moment.

MJ music by Michael Jackson, book by Lynn Nottage

Orchestrations and musical arrangements by Jason Michael Webb and David Holcenberg; directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon.

Featuring: Myles Frost (MJ); Quentin Earl Darrington (Rob/Joseph Jackson); Whitney Bashor (Rachel); Gabriel Ruiz (Alejandro); Walter Russell III & Christian Wilson (Little Michael); Tavon Olds-Sample (Tour Singer, Michael, Isley Brother-dancer); Devin Trey Campbell (Little Marlon); Antoine L. Smith (Nick, Berry Gordy, Don Cornelius, Doctor); Joey Sorge (Dave); Raymond Baynard; John Edwards; Ayana George; Kali May Grinder; Apollo Levine; Carina-Kay Louchiey; Michelle Mercedes; Kyle Robinson; Ryan Vandenboom; Lamont Walker II, and Selig Williams.

Scenic design by Derek McLane; lighting design by Natasha Katz; costume design by Paul Tazewell; sound design by Gareth Owens; Projection Design by Peter Nigrini; wig and hair design by Charles LaPointe; make-up design by Joe Dulude II; associate director, Dontee Kiehn; associate choreographer, Michael Balderrama.

Neil Simon Theater (250 West 52nd Street).  Runtime 2:30 hours with one 15-minute intermission.

Readers may also enjoy  Natalie Douglas at BirdlandSelected Shorts at Symphony Space54 Sings Broadway’s Greatest HitsNow More than Over: The Songs of Billy Recce, and the New Talent Comedy Showcase.

MJ the Musical


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