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Review: MJ The Musical (Prince Edward Theatre)

Review by Daz Gale

 

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

 

The King of Pop is back in the West End but unlike Thriller, the Michael Jackson concert that resided here for more than a decade, MJ The Musical is a full-blown musical. Having won over audiences as well as Tony awards for its Broadway run, can it repeat the success on this side of the Atlantic and be worthy of the shows the legendary entertainer was famous for putting on or should we prepare to tell it to beat it?

 

MJ The Musical opened on Broadway in 2021 where it continues to this day. A US tour followed but the West End production marks the first time it has been seen internationally – not the last though with productions in Hamburg and Sydney due. It is set around the Dangerous World Tour in 1992 as Michael Jackson is deep in rehearsals while MV film behind-the-scenes footage.  As Michael talks about his life, we revisit everything up until that point from the Jackson 5 to the start of his solo career and the beast of an album that is ‘Thriller’.

 


Finding an appropriate narrative to effectively tell Michael Jackson’s story was a Dangerous task – however, Lynn Nottage’s book finds clever ways to draw parallels between Michael Jackson’s state of mind in 1992 and his earlier days with the same actor transforming from his manager to his father, getting an insight into the childhood Michael had and the scars it left him as he attempts to face his demons that haunted him through his life. One of the most famous people to ever live, Lynn Nottage manages to draw bullet points from his life which scratches the surface but always leaves us wanting more. The allegations that dogged him in his later years are touched upon but not extensively, leaving the man and the music at the forefront of the story. Similarly, the story of the show stops at the Dangerous tour, never skipping forward beyond that, though songs from beyond that era do make a welcome appearance.

 

With such an extensive and acclaimed songbook to his name, it would be very easy to fill MJ with nothing but Michael Jackson’s greatest hits, so it is admirable that the songs represented here have been carefully selected to further the story. To quote dialogue from the show when Michael is asked how he picks songs for his setlist, “I think about the story I want to tell” and that is key to the effectiveness of the music here. While we do get some of his biggest hits and crowd-pleasers, there are some surprising omissions and even more surprising inclusions with deep cuts that might not have been the most obvious of choices, but further the narrative beautifully. Lesser known numbers like ‘Keep The Faith’ and a personal favourite though admittedly not a huge hit ‘Stranger In Moscow’ among the refreshing inclusions. It is this level of care that has been taken in crafting the story and songs being told that makes MJ such a special show to watch.



 

Christopher Wheeldon’s direction creatively brings the music, the moves, and the man himself to life with some expert choices, beautifully representing the iconic moments Michael was famous for while putting his spin on it and making it a bit more theatrical. It is the over-analyzing meticulous level of detail that goes into each step and each sequence that is key to the success of these moments, and one that is befitting the work ethic Michael himself was known for, as is glimpsed in the narrative here. Wheeldon’s slick choreography similarly thrills, leaving in so many of Michael’s signature moves and routines (‘Billie Jean’ is every bit as spectacular as you would hope) while making the whole thing grander and never losing any of the connectivity in doing so.

 

Derek McLane’s scenic design takes you into the heart of the Dangerous World Tour rehearsal room with a fairly anonymous design that transforms itself in surprising and increasingly delightful ways. The greatest aspect of this is the fluidity of these transformations and how effortlessly it transforms back in the blink of an eye – suddenly a moment of furniture will flip to reveal something different and flashbacks will return to the present day thanks to the reappearance of props. The pre-show curtain featuring Michael’s idea for dances with some musical theatre references is another inspired touch, blending the worlds of theatre and pop together with ease. The greatest feat in McLane’s scenic design comes in a key sequence towards the show’s climax with a huge and sudden transformation drawing inspiration from the ‘Dangerous’ album cover, it is a thing of beauty.



Similarly, the other design elements equally amaze with Paul Tazewell bringing to life some truly iconic costumes, Peter Nigrini delivering some astonishing projections and Natasha Katz ensuring the lighting is as big and breathtaking as if we were at one of Michael’s stadium concerts. The lighting and projections play a huge part in the success of the key moment ‘They Don’t Care About Us’ which is a visual explosion, while the standout sequence ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ transports us to Studio 54 with some remarkable use of lighting. It is the way each visual element comes together that makes MJ so flawless, with the incredibly satisfying twist on ‘Smooth Criminal’ the finest example of this.

 

When all of these elements come together seamlessly, they create theatre magic – this magic is found in MJ time and time again, right from the opening number ‘Beat It. Most shows would kill for one showstopper of a number but MJ has them to spare. When I say this show has no shortage of showstopping moments, I’m not kidding, with ‘Billie Jean’, ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, and ‘Smooth Criminal’, all God-tier performances. However, there is one moment that pips them all to be the undoubted highlight of the evening, and that belongs to the bold and big staging. Flipping the lyrics of what has become a seasonal song in the decades since to create a sense of emotion and a new way to haunt your soul is an inspired touch and a great testament to the skill of all involved here, particularly that of David Holcenberg who has rearranged the song we all know and love, but it is when the staging kicks in after the first verse that you should prepare for your jaw to drop. With a radical stage transformation, this is theatre at its most creative and its most beautiful, leaving me with a sequence that is up there with the very best in any musical currently playing on the West End.  Sometimes there is a disconnect between direction, design, choreography, and the writing in a show – when they all come together harmoniously as they have on MJ, a true genius level of creativity can be found, as is most obviously demonstrated during this number.



It's fair to say the creatives involved here have all created magic, but the cast more than matched this impossibly high bar set by them. The show is led by original Broadway star Myles Frost as MJ who reprises his role for the West End production. It doesn’t take long to see why he won himself a Tony award for his portrayal – a truly remarkable talent, he proves himself to be a triple threat with impeccable singing, dancing, and acting with the incredible ability to do an uncanny likeness of Michael’s singing voice. Tapping into the intricacies of Michael’s being, he delivers a true masterclass performance, bringing the house down whenever he is front and centre. Rather admirably though, he is more than happy to sit in the background for portions of the show and watch some of his fellow cast members take the spotlight – though his presence is always noticeable, this makes his big moments all the more impactful. Where he already has a Tony to his name for this role, don’t be surprised if an Olivier follows next year.

 

Mitchell Zhangazha plays a younger version of Michael and wows in his time in the role with his heavenly voice bringing a different side to the character than Myles portrays but ensuring it’s every bit as fantastic. Ashley Zhangazha gets the difficult dual roles of Michael’s dad Joseph and his manager Rob, with his ability to turn from one to another in a mere moment a testament to his versatility as an actor. Philippa Stefani is a dominant presence as Rachel, while Phebe Edwards gives a star performance as Michael’s mum Katherine, getting her own standout moment in a truly beautiful and poignant rendition of ‘I’ll Be There’.



While some may find jukebox musicals a lazy form of theatre, there is nothing lazy about this production. Visually stunning, MJ The Musical features inspired choices at every level from flawless direction, mind-blowing choreography, and out-of-this-world vocals to create an unbeatable musical well worthy of the King of Pop himself. As someone who was raised on Michael Jackson’s music but never quite felt satisfied by Thriller – Live, MJ The Musical is the show I had been waiting for, and one that certainly didn’t disappoint. While we have been treated to some big Broadway transfers over the last year, in my opinion, this is the best out of all of them and could be a strong contender for the best musical of the year. MJ will appeal to both fans of Michael Jackson and fans of musical theatre in what is the most exciting and creative show to open in a long time. There is nothing Bad about this Thriller of a show.

 

MJ The Musical plays at the Prince Edward Theatre. Tickets are on sale from www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk

 

Photos by Johan Persson

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