Review: MJ THE MUSICAL First National Tour Presented By Broadway In Chicago

The national tour debut of the Michael Jackson jukebox musical plays through September 2

By: Aug. 10, 2023
Review: MJ THE MUSICAL First National Tour Presented By Broadway In Chicago

Is MJ THE MUSICAL a fun and entertaining musical that treats audiences to many of Michael Jackson’s iconic hits? Yes. Does MJ also demonstrate why bio jukebox musicals are tricky? Yes. In the musical, MJ emphatically tells fictional MTV reporter Rachel that he wants to be remembered for his music. But can the art be separated from the artist, or are the two intertwined in all their messy, complicated ways? I don’t have an answer to that question, but I think MJ struggles with making the struggles and demons of a complex person — the real-life Michael Jackson — seem simplistic.

The question of precisely how many details from Michael Jackson’s life to include in this musical is not an easy one for book writer Lynn Notage and director/choreographer Christoper Wheeldon to answer — especially considering that the Estate of Michael Jackson is involved in the production of the show. I’m not sure MJ strikes entirely the right balance. I don’t think audiences necessarily want to see a musical that explores all of Michael Jackson’s deeply troubled issues, but the musical skates over many of them. Nottage does movingly portray MJ’s abusive relationship with his father —and how his mother Katherine served as an important buffer; the book writing beautifully cues up the iconic Jackson 5 song “I’ll Be There” as a show of motherly support (and it’s terrifically sung by Anastasia Talley). Overall, Nottage masterfully weaves the book and songs together; it’s not surprising that such a talented playwright would succeed in that.

But for every moment in MJ in which the story feels rooted in specificity and integrity, there’s many other moments that paint with broad strokes. The musical notably starts and ends in 1992, introducing us to MJ as he’s rehearsing to launch his Dangerous tour. It hints at MJ’s painkiller addiction and is rather frank about his financial troubles, but then the musical conveniently skirts around allegations of sexual abuse — and tries to couch some of MJ’s other issues, like his concerns about his appearance, as a by-product of media harassment. I have no doubt that the immense pressure put on Michael Jackson by his own family and the media contributed to his mental instability, but the show sometimes uses those facts as excuses. I didn’t reasonably expect MJ to unpack all of the singer’s issues, and it’s a hard line to draw when the musical also wants to celebrate one of pop’s most iconic artists and one of the first successful Black men in popular music. MJ’s artistry and accomplishments as a musician and performer are unquestionable, but some of his behaviors are not so neatly categorized.

If you’re looking to see and hear some of MJ’s greatest hits performed well, however, the show understands that assignment entirely. Wheeldon’s choreography is consistently dazzling and dynamic; the movement patterns are complex, but the ensemble makes them look easy. Wheeldon’s direction and Nottage’s book also fit seamlessly together, creating a cohesive, enjoyable staging (even if some act one scenes drag a bit). As with other bio jukebox musicals, MJ divides the title role into three parts. On opening night, Josiah Benson took on the role of Little MJ with aplomb (he alternates with Ethan Joseph). As teenage Michael, Brandon Lee Harris is similarly compelling. Without a doubt, this national tour has found a star in Roman Banks as MJ. Banks remarkably captures Michael Jackson’s distinct, soft-spoken, raspy speaking voice. In fact, it was quite jarring the first time I heard Banks speak. But when Banks moves into MJ’s performer mode, the transformation is unreal and aligned with the real Michael Jackson. Banks has a powerful voice, and his moonwalk is impeccable. He glides across the stage with ease, seamlessly transitioning between high-energy dance moments and killer vocals. It’s the kind of performance that a show like MJ needs. 

While the convention of the hard-hitting but well-intentioned journalist is familiar territory, Mary Kate Moore comes by the role of Rachel honestly. And though she doesn’t have many singing moments, she has a beautiful duet with Banks on “Human Nature.” Devin Bowles is commanding in his dual roles as MJ’s tour manager Rob and his tough father Joseph Jackson, quickly switching between both. The entire ensemble has expert vocals and moves, which gives the show tons of energy.

MJ hits hard in some moments, but the musical seems like an oversimplification of its complex protagonist. Funnily enough, even though the musical is also of course a Michael Jackson hit parade, it comes by some of the big hits only in passing (“The Way You Make Me Feel,” for example, receives just a musical interlude) and bypasses others altogether (there’s no “P.Y.T.” or “Remember The Time.”) When the hits deliver, though, they really deliver. “Thriller” becomes an astounding vehicle for MJ to unpack some of his familial trauma, and “Smooth Criminal” is an electrifying mix of song and dance. The musical is undoubtedly a celebration of MJ’s artistry and iconic song catalog, but it could probe deeper when it comes to MJ’s life beyond the music. 

The premiere of the MJ National Tour plays through September 2 at the James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 West Randolph Street.

Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

Review by Rachel Weinberg


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From This Author - Rachel Weinberg

Chicago native Rachel Weinberg has been one of the most frequent contributing editors and critics for BroadwayWorld Chicago since joining the team in 2014. She is a marketing professional specialized ... Rachel Weinberg">(read more about this author)


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