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MJ the Musical review: Dark and dazzling production exposes singer’s late career for the haunted circus it was

Myles Frost moves with a dreamy, fantastically eerie lightness as an older Michael Jackson  (Johan Persson)
Myles Frost moves with a dreamy, fantastically eerie lightness as an older Michael Jackson (Johan Persson)

There’s something nightmarish about the spectacle of Michael Jackson being endlessly, profitably exhumed by his estate: hologram appearances, posthumous albums, a forthcoming biopic, and now this fourth stage show about his life (following the West End’s Thriller Live, and two Cirque du Soleil extravaganzas). But miraculously, MJ the Musical doesn’t feel like just another cash grab – and that’s all thanks to the formidable writing muscle of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage (Sweat, Clyde’s), who exposes Jackson’s late career for the haunted circus it was.

Admittedly, the production doesn’t directly tackle the paedophilia accusations – two sexual abuse lawsuits against the musician are currently making their way, albeit very slowly, through the courts – and perhaps a musical could never tackle the legal and moral complexities of discussing them. But Nottage’s portrait of Jackson, which follows the singer in rehearsals for his wildly extravagant 1992 Dangerous tour, never depicts him as the superhero he dresses up as on stage, either.

An exasperated MTV documentarian Rachel (Philippa Stefani), tasked with making a film about Jackson’s creative process, weaves her way through the lithe dancers, complaining that she can’t understand the star without more access to his carefully concealed private life. Perhaps Nottage was similarly commissioned to focus on Jackson’s musical artistry over his personal struggles, too, but her book’s biggest strength is the way it exposes Jackson through his songs, showing how he increasingly danced to the rhythms of past traumas.

Flashbacks to Michael’s horrendous childhood show his father Joseph (Ashley Zhangazha) drilling The Jackson 5 like circus animals: when he claps, they flinch. He mocks his young son’s skin colour, his nose. And as the kids slog their way through their hundredth take, he fondles junior Motown employees. Michael’s success comes from the adult pain and self-loathing that fills his voice as the group perform their childlike numbers. And even when he finally breaks free, his parents loom large, director Christopher Wheeldon having them melt in and out of the throngs of acolytes like ghosts.

As the grown-up MJ, Myles Frost moves with a dreamy, fantastically eerie lightness, whether he’s moonwalking, pranking everyone by dressing up as a janitor, or squirting his business manager who advises him to mortgage Neverland Ranch with a water pistol. He’s the ringleader of his own circus now, and having sacrificed his childhood and health (suffering horrific burns in a stage accident) to someone else’s dream, he’s not willing to compromise ever again – however financially or morally ruinous the consequences might be.

A spectacular second act number, masterfully choreographed by Wheeldon, shows MJ dueting with dance greats like Fred Astaire and Bob Fosse, steely perfectionism drilled into every bone of his body (one misstep and he’d be another Black man condemned to life working on a factory production line, his father always told him).

Each song has a message here: in one close-to-the-bone scene, MJ’s family swirl around him singing “Money” as they force their reluctant cash cow back on stage. In an extravagant staging of “Thriller”, MJ is menaced by afro-wigged, sequin-clad zombies from his Motown childhood. Derek McLane’s impossibly lavish scenic design and a universally strong cast capture the stratospheric ambition of a singer who wanted to be a spaceman, a superhero, an alien.

Off the wall: laudable design and ensemble work combine to create a dreamlike world, with Jackson at its centre (Johan Persson)
Off the wall: laudable design and ensemble work combine to create a dreamlike world, with Jackson at its centre (Johan Persson)

Of course, MJ was all too human. “Who is this family he wants to bring on tour?” asks a bewildered crew member, in one of the musical’s periodic nods to the looming abuse scandal. These nods are all too easily overwhelmed by this show’s frenetic whirlwind of choreography and song, but still, there’s enough darkness here to tarnish MJ’s over-exploited stardom.

Prince Edward Theatre, until September 2024