Myles Frost’s moonwalk and hit songs carry the Michael Jackson show
Whatever you think of Michael Jackson, the man has been very successful and if there’s one thing audiences love, it’s a show with good songs.
‘MJ The Musical,’ which recently opened at New York’s Neil Simon Theater on Tuesday, features tracks from ‘Off the Wall,’ ‘Thriller,’ ‘Bad,’ ‘Dangerous’ — and classics from The Jackson 5 .
It’s, well, bad? No, but it’s not great. Like most jukebox musicals, there are some good scenes. It’s certainly worth seeing, but it’s not special – even with a book by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage.
The show takes place in Los Angeles at a rehearsal studio in 1992, before the start of Jackson’s “Dangerous” tour in Munich, Germany. As we enter the theater, we see dancers on stage. Some chat, others stretch and practice dance moves. The group is there too, listening.
A few minutes later, MJ appears, played by Myles Frost. This self-taught singer, dancer and actor is wonderful. He looks, sounds, acts and dances like Big Mike. “Beat It” kicks things off, and it’s a lot of fun. Director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon draws inspiration from the famous video, including a bit of the “knife fight”. Eddie Van Halen fans will be happy to know that the onstage guitarist pulls off the solo.
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During rehearsals, MJ is interviewed by MTV, as he talks to the reporter (Whitney Bashor), he takes us back to how he started singing with his brothers.
This is where we meet Little Michael, played in some performances by Walter Russell III and in others by Christian Wilson. In the Playbill, Wilson is described as “a rising superstar,” and that’s perfect. Her smile is contagious and the child can dance and sing. Tony winner Paul Tazewell’s costumes — for Little Michael, his brothers, and throughout the show — are a treat.
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But wait, there’s a third Michael! Tavon Olds-Sample plays Jackson as an older teenager, with afro, then “Off the Wall”/”Thriller” Michael, working in the studio. Congratulations to the designer of wigs and hairstyles Charles LaPointe.
However, Frost is still the center of attention. By guiding us through the creative process, it truly captures the quirky spirit of the King of Pop. His childish voice sometimes borders on comedic, but it was Michael.
Fans will be happy to know there’s the moonwalk during “Billie Jean,” but Frost’s favorite move seems to be the circle moonwalk (moonwalk circle? Circle slide?). He does this several times during the show. Rich & Tone Talauega are credited in the “Michael Jackson Movement” Playbill. (The duo have worked with Jackson since the 1990s.)
The impressive Quentin Earl Darrington has a big role as Rob, who is MJ’s right-hand man, and Joseph, Michael’s father. Sometimes Darrington switches gears from character to character in the same scene.
Rob worries that Jackson is working too hard himself and the dancers. He also notices when the superstar starts taking too many pills. But Darrington transforms into Joseph, becoming much more intense. It has been well reported that Joseph Jackson was abusive, and we see it here.
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Ayana George plays Katherine Jackson, Michael’s mother. She is loving, supportive and forgiving. In one scene, she says she knows Joseph isn’t perfect and tough on boys. He does it, she says, because he never had the chance. So he makes sure his kids do it.
During the show, Fred Astaire, James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Berry Gordy, Quincy Jones, Don Cornelius and Bob Fosse all make appearances. Each of them inspired Michael.
Tony winner Derek McLane creates big moments with his sets. It’s at its best during “Smooth Criminal,” with its urban skyline and neon signs creating a fitting spectacle for that “Bad” song. This is another time the show’s choreography is inspired by video. Frost wears a white suit jacket and fedora, and does the famous “anti-gravity lean” dance move.
“Thriller” is teased in Act One before the zombies take center stage in Act II. “They Don’t Care About Us” and “Stranger in Moscow” from the 1995 album “HIStory” are other highlights of the show, conveying anger and isolation respectively.
There are bits and pieces from many other songs, leaving audiences wanting more a little too often.
The over $20 million show required a lot of teamwork, including sound design by Gareth Owen; Jason Michael Webb, a native of Neptune, for musical direction, orchestrations and arrangements; David Holcenberg for musical supervision, orchestrations and arrangements; Strange Cranium for electronic music design; and music coordinator John Miller.
Director Wheeldon does his best to bring together the cast, the band, the sets and the music. Not surprisingly, this doesn’t always work. Michael Jackson dreamed big, striving to reach heights he couldn’t reach. He wanted “Bad” to sell better than “Thriller”. He wanted his “Dangerous” tour to be the biggest in the world. (The show ended up grossing $140 million and was seen by over 4 million people. Oddly enough, it never made it to America.)
“MJ” doesn’t address the 1993 allegation that rocked the pop world, when Jackson was accused of molesting a 13-year-old boy in 1993. The allegation, however, is implied. In 1994, Jackson settled the case out of court, reportedly spent $20 million but denied doing anything wrong. Child molestation charges followed in 2003, but Jackson was acquitted in 2005. HBO aired the documentary “Leaving Neverland” in 2019, focusing on two men who said Jackson (who died in 2009) abused them when they were children. Jackson’s estate filed a lawsuit against the network, claiming the singer was innocent.
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The recall of “MJ” is a missed opportunity. Do we need the cast to sing the new jack swing song “Jam”? The cast also sings “Black or White,” which makes sense. Let’s get together and celebrate. We need more of this in the world – but it falls flat.
A better choice would have been “Black or White” followed by a Jackson 5 medley. Or “Can You Feel It” by The Jacksons. Or “Will You Be There,” a top 10 song played on Jackson’s Dangerous World Tour but not included in “MJ.” The song would have needed some editing, but it’s uplifting – and the cast could have served as a “chorus”.
There are even a few “woos!” for Frost.
Still, it’s too late, as “Man in the Mirror” puts it, to “make that change.”
No matter what I say, say, say.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: ‘MJ The Musical’ review: Songs, new stars carry Michael Jackson’s show