'MJ' at the Orpheum: celebrating the music of Michael Jackson, not the man

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday February 6, 2024
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Roman Banks and dancers in 'MJ'<br>(photo: Matthew Murphy/MurphyMade)
Roman Banks and dancers in 'MJ'
(photo: Matthew Murphy/MurphyMade)

How do you solve a problem like Michael Jackson?

Amidst all the goosebump-inducing musical moments in "MJ," the Jackson-inspired show now playing at the Orpheum Theatre, there's a quick snippet of song that's particularly worthy of attention.

Considering it may help ambivalent potential audience members troubled by the Gloved One's unsavory extra-artistic legacy let down their resistance, adjust their perspectives, and enjoy the many aspects of this production that are, in a positive sense of the word, sensational.

During one of director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon's elegantly integrated flashback sequences, we hear young Michael and his brothers briefly step away from bubblegum funk to sing a few bars of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

It's "Climb Ev'ry Mountain," and it's a pointed reminder that the representation of the Jacksons in "MJ" is no more intended as realism than was the portrayal of those other singing siblings, the Von Trapps, in "The Sound of Music" (You know, the Broadway musical that some once earnestly argued had sugarcoated the horrors of the Holocaust).

A-B-C, do-re-mi, that's how misguided moral outrage can be.

It's a Broadway glitter bomb, folks, not a referendum on Michael's morality, let alone your own. Michael Jackson is not your problem to solve.

Roman Banks and Mary Kate Moore in 'MJ.' (photo: Matthew Murphy/MurhpyMade)  

Magic act
It turns out that "MJ" is more music delivery system than hagiography anyhow. The show never makes Jackson out to be a hero.

In Lynn Nottage's canny, unidolatrous script, he's economically etched as an anxiety-wracked perfectionist; twitchy, demanding, whiny or sullen whenever underlings are not meeting his demands as he prepares for his 1992 "Dangerous" tour.

There's just enough dialogue to give you a sense that Jackson wasn't good company. But there's such an abundance of galvanizing song and dance that you're able to set aside the character's personal presence to focus on his musical gifts.

Roman Banks, the phenomenal talent in the title role, moves like he has electric current running through every bone and sinew. Not only when he's flinging his legs and unhinging his elbows in the familiar yet freshly dizzying choreography of numbers like "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough" and "Smooth Criminal," but even when his Jackson is standing on the sidelines, conferring with managers, or assessing the flaws of his backup troupe.

Jackson's wrists flip and his ankles flex with involuntary restlessness, taking on purpose only when he's performing. The Michael Jackson we are given in "MJ" is not a psychologically coherent personality; he's a conduit for mystic musicality.

Throughout the show, there is only the scantest suggestion that Jackson ever intentionally concentrated on composing a song or choreographing a dance routine. He comes off as a vessel for some magical force, not an artist struggling with creative process. Certainly, this sells Jackson short. But it also allows audiences to get swept up by the music without getting uncomfortably close to the man.

Who's bad?
"Dangerous" rehearsals form the bulk of "MJ," making it feel very much like a stage version of 2009's "This Is It" documentary, which chronicles the creation of the London residency that a scandal-embroiled Jackson was putting together in the weeks before his death earlier that same year.
But while that film felt like a willfully disingenuous immediate post-mortem cash grab, Wheeldon, Nottage and the artist's estate (which authorized this production) smartly set "MJ" within a timeframe that ends nearly two decades prior to Jackson's demise.

There's no narrative necessity to address the 17 years of unsavory public scandal and controversy that followed. The show's essentially plotless foreground is flecked with enough chiming, kinetic backstory to remind us that Michael was already a thriller in the innocent days of his childhood (and that his father was a well-intentioned creep).

The script also includes passing acknowledgements of Jackson's pill-popping, cosmetic interventions, and financial irresponsibility. "MJ" is by no means a whitewash, nor is it anything close to the definitive Michael Jackson story. It's an exhilarating shot of showbiz dopamine.

The wallop of joy it delivers has to do with the place of Jackson's music in your life, not his.

'MJ,' through Feb. 25. $65-$234. Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St. (888) 746-1799. www.broadwaysf.com

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