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‘MJ the Musical’ at Segerstrom Center is a Dazzling Song-Packed Portrait of Michael Jackson

Scene from “MJ The Musical.” Photo by Matthew Murphy, MurphyMade

By Eric Marchese | Special to the NB Indy

Would anyone want to trade places with Michael Jackson? The pop singer’s talent and brilliance brought him fame and wealth beyond compare, but at a price. Despite whatever success and acclaim, his perfectionism drove him to push himself to his physical and emotional limits.

The 2022 jukebox musical “MJ the Musical” gives us Jackson at the height of his fame, as he puts himself through ever-grueling paces in preparation for his 1992 Dangerous World Tour. Adding fuel to the fire is the presence of an MTV reporter and cameraman pushing Jackson for an exclusive interview – and, they hope, a scoop about his addiction to painkillers.

At Segerstrom Center for the Arts through the end of this month, the dazzling 2023-’24  North American tour delivers tons of the pop singer’s music, often in a way that elicits the feel of attending a Michael Jackson concert.

But “MJ” is also incredibly satisfying from a dramatic standpoint, giving us a look at Jackson from his childhood and the pressures of often-bullying dad Joseph up through the rise of the Jackson Five and beyond to the point where Michael began to break away as a solo artist and begin a climb to dizzying heights of fame unknown to most.

Lynn Nottage’s book documents the key moments in Jackson’s life and shows us how he intuitively felt and understood music and used it to express his feelings. Through director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s impressive, often eye-popping staging of some of Jackson’s greatest songs, “MJ the Musical” does the rest, carving a compelling portrait of a brilliant, often tortured musician.

As difficult as it might be to witness Jackson’s life story through the mid-1990s, this show celebrates his genius, artistry and showmanship in ways that no journalist’s words can adequately communicate.

Scene from “MJ The Musical.” Photo by Matthew Murphy, MurphyMade

That’s because “MJ the Musical” gives us a portrait of Jackson that’s irresistible realized by the uncanny portrayal delivered on opening night by Jamaal Fields-Green (alternate to Roman Banks).

Fields-Green has Jackson’s soft, breathy voice and gentle demeanor, but goes far beyond simply being a Jackson clone. He delivers a tour-de-force performance that can only be described as phenomenal and that uncannily captures MJ’s fluid, singular moves and one-of-a-kind dance style. Like Jackson, his quiet, modest persona morphs into sizzling showmanship whenever he performs.

The touring company is also blessed with two more incredible actors who embody the star as a child and as a teen and young adult.

As “Little Michael,” Bane Griffith, gifted to us on opening night (he shares the role with Josiah Benson) is everything young Jackson should be: Adorable, precocious and brimming with positive emotional energy (not to mention vocal talent). From his first moments on stage, Griffith is pure dynamite, causing us to marvel in the same way as those who first saw child star Jackson.

Brandon Lee Harris gives us the intermediate MJ, providing a credible intermediate between Little Michael and the “King of Pop” who comes to be known as MJ, with a memorably poignant performance of “You Can’t Win.”

As if this stellar trio weren’t enough to carry the show, “MJ the Musical” has, in Devin Bowles, a star who skillfully embodies two characters who couldn’t be more dissimilar: Jackson’s domineering dad Joseph, who pushed, pressured and bullied Michael and his brothers while failing to show affection for his talented sons, and Rob, the director of the upcoming Dangerous tour whose stance toward Michael makes him more like a protective, loving father the star never had.

Scene from “MJ The Musical.” Photo by Matthew Murphy, MurphyMade

As Joseph, Bowles is a huge, dominating presence. His gravelly voice and menacing presence define the character, from whose bullying Jackson spends a lifetime trying to escape. And so we can marvel at Bowles’s guardian angel-like Rob.

The touring show is bright but not gaudy, and exciting but also informative in what it reveals about Jackson and his life. A through-line of Nottage’s script is Jackson’s desire to break free from his wholesome early image and to carve a more realistic persona that, through lyrics and unforgettable, iconic dancing, speaks to elements more “bad” and “dangerous.”

The musical content is incredible in its breadth and depth, directed by Victor Simonson and with orchestrations and arrangements by Jason Michael Webb and David Holcenberg, electronic music design by Strange Cranium and overall coordination by John Miller.

The show opens with the huge production number “Beat It,” which has enough energy and pizzaz for five shows, and unfurls incredible set pieces in “Bad,” “Billie Jean,” “Can You Feel It” and “Keep the Faith.” The dazzling, vibrant “Smooth Criminal” number, with its sinuous dancing, thumping bass chords and air of danger, epitomizes “MJ the Musical.”

With phenomenal choreography and dancing, a blazing “Thriller” is the climactic, show-stopping production number – but that’s not the end of “MJ.” That would be the more subdued, introspective “Man in the Mirror,” but the show’s cast then serves up a socko version of “Black or White.”

Scene from “MJ The Musical.” Photo by Matthew Murphy, MurphyMade

The touring company’s production design is as exacting as Jackson would have wished, from Paul Tazewell’s extraordinary costumes to Derek McLane’s decades-spanning set design to the lighting (Natasha Katz), projection design (Peter Nigrini) and sound design (Gareth Owen).

Enough can’t be said for Wheeldon’s direction and the meticulous choreography, and he has backed it all up by assembling a stellar cast. Everyone, from leads through supporting players and ensemble members, brings strong performances energized by solid vocals and dancing.

Talley is affectingly vulnerable as Jackson’s often helpless mom, Moore’s Rachel is a cool, inquisitive reporter, and the remaining 24 actors excel in portraying the dozens of family members, dancers, producers, accountants and more swirling around Jackson from his boyhood on up through an increasingly tumultuous career and life.

Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Through March 31. Running time (includes intermission): Two hours, 40 minutes. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays.-Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: $99-$199. Ticket purchase/information: 714-556-2787, www.scfta.org.

The post ‘MJ the Musical’ at Segerstrom Center is a Dazzling Song-Packed Portrait of Michael Jackson appeared first on Newport Beach News.


Source: Newport Beach Independent

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