Theatre Review by Howard Miller - February 1, 2022
MJ. Book by Lynn Nottage. Directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. Scenic design by Derek McLane. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Costume design by Paul Tazewell. Sound by Gareth Owen. 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. Michael Jackson movement by Rich + Tone Talauega. Electronic music design by Strange Cranium. Music coordinator John Miller. Music direction, orchestrations, and arrangements by Jason Michael Webb. Music supervision, orchestrations, and arrangements by David Holcenberg.
"But is it perfect?" asks Jackson in a moment of self-doubt near the end of the non-stop extravaganza built around three dozen songs associated with the singer (plus one Rodgers and Hammerstein number he performed in a first grade talent show). That's a loaded question, of course, but one that is hardly risky to ask of an audience that has been so thoroughly entertained for two-and-a-half hours. So, even if not absolutely perfect (more on that later), MJ, with a book by Lynn Nottage and direction and choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, comes as close as any musical that has appeared on a Broadway stage in a very long time. If nothing else, it certainly sets a very high bar for any jukebox musical that dares to follow.
While there is as much praise to distribute as there are performers, we must begin with Myles Frost, about whom we need to shake out the cliché and say a star is born. Who is this person? Why haven't we seen him on Broadway before? Astonishingly, Frost was not even the first choice to play Jackson. That would be Ephraim Sykes, who was performing on Broadway as Motown recording artist David Ruffin in the musical Ain't Too Proud back in the pre-COVID days when he was signed on to take the lead role of the MJ project.
We all know what stopped happening during the dark time, but life and careers did go on. By the time things started cranking up for Broadway's resurrection, Sykes had moved on to other projects and commitments. And, so, enter Myles Frost, about whom the initial press release had almost nothing to say beyond announcing his name and that he had been picked following "an exhaustive search for a uniquely talented performer." If it sounds like hype, so be it. But Frost, whose professional acting résumé is quite short and mostly confined to a handful of television appearances, is the real thing, and not just a Michael Jackson mimic. When it comes to singing and, especially, dancing, Frost repeatedly knocks it out of the ballpark. Of course, the singing requires him to sound like Jackson, but no one can get by with imitative dancing and still manage to tear down the house the way Frost does to Christopher Wheeldon's choreography.
And speaking of "who knew?" Who knew that Wheeldon, whose world has generally been that of modern ballet and who currently is an artistic associate for London's Royal Ballet, would be able to choreograph with such consummate skill the Motown, pop, rock, moonwalking, Fosse-like, gravity-defying dance moves on display here? Last time we saw Wheeldon's work on Broadway was in 2015 and the ballet-heavy An American in Paris, hardly a predictor of the work required for MJ.
The answer lies in the show's strong collaborative spirit. Wheeldon has the assistance of an associate choreographer (Michael Balderrama) who had previously worked with Michael Jackson, as well as on a dozen Broadway shows, both as a performer and as a member of creative teams. Also on hand are pop choreographers Rich + Tone Talauega, who are responsible for "Michael Jackson movements." Add to that a large cast of ace dancers who fill the stage with equally thrilling moves, and you've got yourself a "wow" factor that would be hard to beat.
The same high quality can be said of anyone who is called on to sing. Myles Frost is very good at replicating Jackson's singing voice, but he hardly is alone in singing prowess. One standout is Ayana George, who doubles as Jackson's mother and as a tour singer. She is a knockout vocalist who can break your heart one minute with "I'll Be There" and infuriate you the next with "Money," a song used here to establish the greediness that engulfs the Jackson family when they feel left behind after Michael breaks out on his own.
More significant in terms of telling this story is the fact that Frost is not the only Michael Jackson on stage. While the main thrust of the show is the process of rehearsing for Jackson's upcoming world tour, the character of the 34-year-old Jackson often pauses to recall his earlier life and career. Two young performers alternate in the role of "Little Michael," who started singing with The Jackson Five at the age of six. Christian Wilson took the honors at the performance I attended, and he was terrific from the get-go when we catch his rendition of "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" in a school talent show. Equally excellent is Tavon Olds-Sample as teenage Michael. We see them both as memories, sometimes in family situations and sometimes in performance.
As with the choreography, a spirit of collaboration is a hallmark of the entire creative team, which has done an outstanding job with the seamless coordination of the production elements: the sound (Gareth Owen), the set (Derek McLane), the projections (Peter Nigrini), the lighting (Natasha Katz), and the gazillion costume changes for Myles Frost, for whom Paul Tazewell has done a spot-on job of helping to capture the familiar image of the pop star. Most impressively, the show grows in all these elements over time, starting with a bare rehearsal floor and becoming more and more elaborate as we approach the launch of the Dangerous tour. It is the smartest use of overall design I've seen in years. And none of it is "smoke and mirrors" intended to cover up flaws, which does happen all too often in otherwise shaky Broadway shows.
But getting back to the star's query of self-doubt: "is it perfect?"
Let me hem and haw a bit before giving my final judgment. For instance, I could quibble about Frost's command of Jackson's unique falsetto voice when he moves beyond a lyric tenor range. And I do wonder why it is that Jackson's sisters are nowhere to be seen. (Hello, LaToya. Hello, Janet. Hello, Rebbie. Sorry we missed you). But more significantly, the wall between Michael Jackson the performer and the dark side of his personality remains inviolate.
Lynn Nottage has curated Jackson's story as much as she has written it for stage. MJ, which is being presented "by special arrangements with the estate of Michael Jackson," is "all about the music," as the character states on more than one occasion. Nottage has provided a frame of sorts, a reporter, Rachel (Whitney Bashor), and a cameraman, Alejandro (Gabriel Ruiz), follow Jackson around as they are working on a documentary about the preparations leading up to the Dangerous tour. "You've grown up in the public eye, you're the subject of a lot of speculation, is it really possible to separate your life from your music?" asks Rachel. And, except for the occasional sideswipe at such "speculation," the answer is "yes." Does it matter? Up to you to decide, of course, but taken on its own merits, MJ is spectacularly entertaining, and in that realm, it comes damn close to being perfect.