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REVIEW: MJ The Musical—Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Updated: Mar 22

"...Mr. Fields-Green offers not just a willowy simulacrum of the star in perfect copies of his classic regalia—black jacket, gold brocade, tilted fedora, white socks scrunched to the ankles—but an eerie mimicry of his mannerisms. The breathy voice; the head-down, eyes-up gaze; the interjectory squeals and yelps: Jamaal Fields-Green has them down cold."



It would take a lot for any single musical biography to completely capture both the enduring allure of Michael Jackson’s work—as well as the tragic complexity of his life.


But “MJ: The Musical,” the Tony Award-winning jukebox musical now running through March 31st at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, with book by Lynn Nottage and direction and choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, does an exceptional job of capturing both aspects.


Like “The Cher Show” Broadway musical six years ago, “MJ” uses three superb actors to play its central character at different ages. All are uncannily brilliant portrayals and ecstatic reincarnations. As the 1992 embodiment, Jamaal Fields-Green carries the bulk of the role (normally performed by Roman Banks), and not only nails Jackson’s signature sound and moves—yes, of course there’s a moonwalk—but also his otherworldly affect: his diffident grandiosity, his mixture of grievance and mischief, his high and breathy way of talking. And he doesn't just capture his playfulness and pillow-soft voice but also the flashes of anger and frustration that would sometimes emerge.


There are also the remarkable standout performances of both “Little Michael” as played by the clarion-voiced 11-year-old Bane Griffith, and teenage Michael (Brandon Lee Harris), looking uncannily like the star and performing key hits with great flair.


Roman Banks as 'MJ' and the cast of the MJ First National Tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy, MurphyMade

“MJ The Musical” leads us on an intimate journey where we encounter Michael’s mom and greatest supporter, Katherine (an amazing Anastasia Talley) and his heavy-handed father Joseph (Devin Bowles, who also plays tour manager Rob) that drove “the gloved one” to not only his musical brilliance but his emotional dark side as well. Nottage casts Michael’s father as the central terrifying figure in his formative years, whose abuse of Michael is well-known, and MJ explicitly connects this mistreatment to the musician’s fractured psyche. Memories of Joe haunt Michael throughout his rehearsals, pushing him to demand more from his crew and from himself. At the root of this perfectionism, the musical suggests, is a desire for his father’s approval.


Set in a rehearsal room making ready for launch of the 1992 Dangerous World Tour, Michael Jackson’s story unfolds organically through memories stirred by MTV reporter Rachel (Mary Kate Moore) and Alejandro (Da’von T. Moody), the camera operator. Dancers, managers, and back-up singers fill the flashback roles using the tour’s props and costumes. The recollections move through the Jackson Five to teenage Michael to world-conquering superstar Michael Jackson. While the show includes downsides like money troubles, drug addiction, “battling his demons” and relentless perfectionism, the 1992 conclusion means that later allegations against Jackson are not covered.


Roman Banks as 'MJ' and the cast of the MJ First National Tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy, MurphyMade

It does capture, however, not only his deeply troubled relationship with his father, but also his original career as the youngest and most talented member of The Jackson Five (Jackie, played by Jay McKenzie who doubles as James Brown; Tito, played by Josh A. Dawson, who also doubles as Quincy Jones; Jermaine, portrayed by Jacobi Kai, also playing one of the Isley Brothers; and Marlon, played by Brion Marquisa Watson, with Little Marlon depicted by young Bryce A. Holmes), and, much later, the serious accident to his head that occurred during the filming of a Pepsi commercial that may well have been the trigger to his use of powerful drugs.


After The Jackson Five signed with Motown Records in 1968, 11-year-old Michael and his brothers had their first number one single, "I Want You Back," the very next year, and continued to top the charts through the early 70’s with songs like "ABC" and "Rockin’ Robin." In 1971, Michael officially started his solo career with songs like “Ben,” “Rock With You,” and “Got to be There.”


Roman Banks as 'MJ' and the cast of the MJ First National Tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy, MurphyMade

By the time Michael released 1979’s “Off the Wall,” his fifth solo album, he was a bona fide musical maestro ready to conquer the world with his blend of disco funk. MJ's star status continued to rise the following decade. Albums like 1982's “Thriller” and 1987's “Bad,” plus singles and videos like "Billy Jean" and "Beat It" cemented him as the king of pop, and by 1989 he was earning a staggering $125 million a year.


The Dangerous World Tour was the second world concert tour (the first being the “Bad” tour three years before with almost twice as many stops) to promote his eighth studio album “Dangerous.” The tour was sponsored by Pepsi-Cola and all profits were donated to various charities including Jackson's own “Heal the World Foundation.” It began in Munich, Germany and concluded in Mexico City November 1993, playing 69 concerts in Europe, Asia and Latin America, grossing over $100 million with attendance of three and a half million people. The show incorporated various stage illusions, among them the "toaster" effect, where Jackson entered the stage on a rapidly rising catapult from underneath, sending off pyrotechnics at the same time.


Roman Banks as 'MJ' and the cast of the MJ First National Tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy, MurphyMade

Using a Federal Express Boeing 747 for transport, the concert cargo included 1,000 lights, 10 miles of electrical cable, 9 video screens,168 speakers and two tons of clothing. 1,000 yards of fabric from Europe was used to make the costumes, including a black and gold outfit for Jackson which included 18-karat gold. The costumes alone cost $2 million.


David Holcenberg’s arrangements use the musician’s catalog to great effect, creating a euphoric production. Wheeldon’s magnetic choreography faithfully reproduces Jackson’s signature moves, from the infamous moonwalk to the slick 45-degree tilt of “Smooth Criminal,” adding subtle twists to sharpen the shifts between Michael’s personality on and off the stage.


That choreography—performed by Mr. Fields-Green along with a superb and amazingly jacked ensemble— offers us a three-dimensional version of what most of us have seen only from distant arena seats or in dark videos on depthless screens. (The show’s “Michael Jackson movement” is credited to two additional choreographers, Rich + Tone Talauega.)


Jaylen Lyndon Hunter as Little Marlon, Ethan Joseph as Little Michael and the cast of the MJ First National Tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy, MurphyMade

The entire body of dancers and singers in the ensemble, who mostly double as secondary characters, are well beyond first-rate, possessing unique and unparalleled artistry. Many of the songs are performed as rehearsals or flashbacks from the early days. But surprisingly, even though the primary focus is on the ’92 Dangerous Tour, several tracks in MJ are from Jackson’s 1995 album “HIStory” (which has appearances by Janet Jackson, Shaquille O'Neal, Slash, and the Notorious B.I.G.), and are cannily placed by Nottage as character moments.


Act Two highlights include a beautiful neon cityscape for “Smooth Criminal,” some stunning shattered crystal visuals for “They Don’t Care About Us,” and the conjuring of Studio 54 for “Wanna Be Starting Something,” completing the electric sequence spectacularly. But the Iconic hit “Thriller,” third song from the end, can only be described as an unforgettable experience. Picture his iconic 1982 music video, “Thriller,” then add 100% more intensity, more ghoulish horror, red neon lighting, color, strobes, terrifying graphics, coffins and graveyards…did I mention horror? All in an extended, choreographed, multi-costumed, remixed sequence that is worth an orchestra seat all by itself. Definitely not for small children.


Josiah Benson as 'Little Michael' and Anastasia Talley as 'Katherine Jackson' in the MJ First National Tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy, MurphyMade

Of course, that’s all credited to the remarkable direction and choreography of Christopher Wheeldon (the ballet-bred Brit whose work is superlative by way of the Joffrey Ballet’s innovative “Nutcracker,” and whose Broadway production of “An American in Paris” garnered several Tony Awards). Collaborating with scenic designer Derek McLane and lighting designer Natasha Katz, complemented with dazzling costumes by Paul Tazewell, the cinematic fluidity achieved is incredible and the dancing is nothing short of astonishing.


Most unexpected is a dance in Act Two that pays homage to the men who influenced Michael’s work: the Nicholas Brothers (Chelsea Mitchell-Bonsu and Brion Marquis Watson), Fred Astaire (Matteo Marretta), and Bob Fosse (Croix Diienno).


At the ending, which focuses on the opening of the Dangerous Tour, the musical lets you see Michael’s perspective viewing a massive audience just before going on, billowing smoke and flashing lights, listening to a roaring crowd. The sound builds louder and louder. Suddenly he pops up out of the “toaster” and the crowd goes wild—definitely a goose-bump moment. Slowly he rotates to face us. Standing stock still, he moves his head to one side, flicks his head to the left and very slowly takes off his iconic glasses…. Without warning, the stage goes black, and he is gone.


Roman Banks as 'MJ' and the cast of the MJ First National Tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy, MurphyMade

Indeed, this is no doubt the biggest biopic dance musical ever to come from Broadway; the energy that is stirred up is electric, celebrating all that was brilliant in Michael Jackson.


When his sudden death was announced in 2009, the news crashed the internet all around the global community. But Michael Jackson’s legacy still lives on to this day, among which are his 31 top ten hits, his 13 Grammy Awards, a half dozen Brit Awards and a total of 26 American Music Awards.


WITH: Roman Banks (Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen and “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series”); Jamaal Fields-Green (MJ – Alternate); Brandon Lee Harris (Michael); Josiah Benson (Little Michael); Bane Griffith (Little Michael); Devin Bowles (Joseph Jackson/Rob); Mary Kate Moore (Rachel); J. Daughtry (Berry Gordy/Nick); Josh A. Dawson (Tito Jackson/Quincy Jones); Bryce A. Holmes (Little Marlon); Matt Loehr (Dave); Da’Von T. Moody (Alejandro) and Anastasia Talley (Katherine Jackson/Kate).


ENSEMBLE: JoJo Carmichael, Croix DiIenno, Kellie Drobnick, Kyle DuPree, Zuri Noelle Ford, Jahir L. Hipps, Skye Jackson-Williams, Jacobi Kai, Rajané Katurah, Jordan Markus, Matteo Marretta, Jay McKenzie, Kendrick Mitchell, Chelsea Mitchell-Bonsu, Zion Mikhail Pradier, Ayla Stackhouse, Brion Marquis Watson, Charles P. Way and Malcolm Miles Young.


AT THIS OPENING PERFORMANCE: Stage Managers are Shawn Pennington, Maya Bhatnagar, Geoff Maus, Xavier Khan. Conductor is Victor Simonson. The role of Michael Jackson is played by Jamaal Fields-Green; Little Michael is played by Bane Griffith. The role usually played by Matteo Marretta will be played by Zion Mikhail Pradier.

MJ makes its Costa Mesa premiere at Segerstrom Center for the Arts from March 19-31, 2024, 600 Town Center Drive Costa Mesa, CA 92626. Created by Tony Award®-winning Director/Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage.


CREATIVE TEAM: Scenic Designer Derek McLane; Lighting Designer Natasha Katz; Costume Designer Paul Tazewell; Sound Designer Gareth Owen; Projection Designer Peter Nigrini; Hair & Wig Designer Charles G. LaPointe; Makeup Designer Joe Dulude II; Musical Superviser David Holcenberg; Orchestrations & Arrangements by David Holcenberg and Jason Michael Webb; Music Direction by Victor Simonson. General Manager Bespoke Theatricals. Production Stage Manager Shawn Pennington; Stage Manager Geoff Maus; Assistant Stage Managers Maya Bhatnagar and Xavier Khan. Company Manager Justin T. Scholl; Assistant Company Manager Bianca Jean-Charles.


MJ The Musical March 19-31, 2024 @ Segerstrom Hall Performs: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday at 7:30 pm Saturday at 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm Sunday at 1:00 pm and 6:30 pm Tickets start at $49. SCFTA.org

Chris Daniels

Arts & Entertainment Reviewer

The Show Report


Photo Credits: Matthew Murphy







 

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