Review: MJ - THE MUSICAL Moonwalks Into OC's Segerstrom Center

Filled with Michael Jackson hits and spectacularly-staged musical numbers, this entertaining jukebox musical focuses on the pop megastar’s irrefutable artistry.

By: Mar. 23, 2024
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Review: MJ - THE MUSICAL Moonwalks Into OC's Segerstrom Center
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In an era when a term like "cancel culture" exists, is it even okay these days to still be a fan of a popular, well-liked celebrity that has also been accused of alleged heinous acts? Is it even possible to separate the undeniably brilliant artist and well-documented humanitarian from the alleged off-stage controversies that have tainted this person's life—which the artist has vehemently denied (and have never really been proven to be true)?

Well, for the Tony Award-winning MJ - THE MUSICAL—the thrilling hit Broadway jukebox musical featuring much of pop star Michael Jackson's hits discography—the goal is simple and obvious: to muzzle any mentions of the King of Pop's worst scandals and to, instead, focus on providing an impressive, audience-mesmerizing showcase for the remarkable, undeniable artistry of the much-beloved, globally-renowned entertainer who passed away quite suddenly in 2009 at the age of 50.

The stage musical, which debuted on Broadway in 2021, shrewdly executes this bit of focal redirection by providing its audience with a non-stop barrage of dazzling, breathlessly-performed musical numbers, while also hinting that the show's seemingly odd titular figure—via a broadly evasive but still serviceable book by Lynn Nottage—is, at his true core, just a smart, endearingly awkward, and unfairly misunderstood music genius, whose eccentric quirks, bashful demeanor, and peculiar proclivities are simply a direct result of having a traumatic childhood that he is refusing to talk about with an inquisitive journalist. 

In essence, this thematic direction that favors re-staging Jackson's musical highlights is a plot-driven roundabout way for the show to not have to address the more salacious scandals that have plagued Jackson during the latter half of his storied career. 

This targeted focus on Michael – The Artist, of course, shouldn't be a surprise considering the show comes with the stamp of approval from the Estate of Michael Jackson, which, understandably, would only want to present him in a positive light (well, with some slight leeways like mentions of a hyperbaric oxygen chamber or his increasingly lighter skin that should remind viewers that he is still, despite his otherworldly talents, just another flawed human being with, albeit, outlandish quirks). 

And, for the most part, the show succeeds in this goal, as evidenced in the highly-entertaining, rapturously-received opening night performance of the show's national tour stop at OC's Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, where it continues its two-week engagement through March 31, 2024.

For much of the run of the musical (a rather lengthy 72-minute first act followed by a 68-minute second act), Jackson's much talked-about scandals and public controversies only get rare, fleeting mentions under the broad, non-specific category of "things [they] say about him" in the press (protested outwardly in a few songs and scenes). 

To alleviate the sting of having to deal with them head-on , the "adult" Michael Jackson presented in MJ - THE MUSICAL—portrayed on opening night in an astonishing, awe-inspiring performance by MJ alternate Jamaal Fields-Green—is shown as a laser-focused, thoughtfully intellectual artist hell-bent on getting his specific wants and visions fulfilled in order to put on the best frikkin' concert tour any artist has ever presented before—budgetary constraints be damned. 

To keep this "making of" vibe moving forward—while also allowing for multiple musicalized "flashbacks" of past key moments of both triumph and sadness to be inserted here and there—the show employs a plot device that involves giving rare access to a two-person documentary crew comprised of a journalist, Rachel (Mary Kate Moore), and her cameraman, Alejandro (Da'Von T. Moody), who are on hand to capture a behind-the-scenes news story chronicling the elusive Jackson and his meticulous creative process of putting together what would eventually be Jackson's highly-successful 1992 Dangerous World Tour. 

Thanks to this tried-and-true structural device for the musical's otherwise wobbly, cliché-heavy narrative, the audience is somewhat provided an indirect way to hear Jackson "speak" on his own behalf, offering whispers of his past pain and his current motivations, though not enough to be truly insightful on things we don't already know about him.

Ultimately, Rachel is aiming to dig deeper into Jackson's mystique, with hopes that Jackson and his support staff would open up a bit more about his life, particularly regarding the ugly gossip that is threatening to derail his artistic projects. As expected, this is proving to be quite a tougher task to undertake. 

It's obvious to her, to his protective yet enabling handlers, and, well, to us, the audience, that Jackson is indeed plagued by demons he can't quite shake off, but is not willing to discuss. Jackson only wants to speak about the work. His music. His art. 

But will she (and us) get actual answers and personal insights? Probably not, considering the real Jackson is no longer around to confirm the (vague) off-stage details being presented here.

Surprisingly, this Jackson musical does allow a few foreshadowing glimpses of what may have caused his untimely passing several years later. Now and again, we see Jackson popping pills to keep trucking along. But that is about as far as this musical is willing to go, and it's partially understandable, if a bit frustrating.

Musically, this structural framework of a "documentary" allows the show to shift erratically from tunes found in his New Jack Swing-flavored Dangerous album, to past iconic songs that include tunes from his early days as a young phenom in his family's musical group the Jackson 5, all the way to his hit songs from his solo albums Off the Wall, Bad, and, of course, his record-breaking, eight-time Grammy Award-winning Thriller, which still stands today as the best-selling album of all time. 

Easily the best part of the show—and the main reason to come, of course—are these Jackson hits, and seeing all the amazing signature dance moves he made famous be gloriously revived. All told, MJ - THE MUSICAL crams in a whopping 25 songs in the show—some in full, most as trimmed snippets—that remind audiences just how prolific Jackson was at churning out incredibly catchy music that redefined pop music.

The resulting show is, overall, mostly a resounding triumph, particularly if we, as an audience, are wiling to take it all in as an energetically and creatively-staged musical review, rather than as a revelatory bio-musical like, say, BEAUTIFUL, THE JERSEY BOYS, TINA, or ON YOUR FEET! attempts to be. 

Enchantingly sophisticated and rousingly entertaining from beginning to end, MJ - THE MUSICAL is, at its sound and visual foundation, a genuinely enjoyable jukebox musical that primarily highlights the work—rather than the life—of a purely creative, enthusiastic showman

Like P.T. Barnum before him, Jackson, more than anything, wanted to wow a crowd—so much so that a significant portion of the musical focuses on his need to have a dangerous (but super cool) "toaster" contraption that will basically shoot Jackson up from  beneath the stage where he'll (hopefully) land on his feet in a warrior pose. Much of the non-musical moments in the show is devoted to Jackson's wildly artistic, pie-in-the-sky demands that causes panic amongst his staff and crew members (even his accountant!) who are all worried about the logistical and financial burden such desires are going to cause.

While most casual viewers might assume this audaciousness comes from an egocentric place, this stage musical challenges that notion, pointing the finger solely instead to his willingness to show the world how far his style of pop/R&B music can stretch artistically and get noticed by the mainstream—and, in a way, show the world that this weird but talented little kid from Indiana is meant for great things, and so his demands are meant to be as entertaining for all as possible. I mean… you can't really fault a guy for wanting to give his fans and paying customers their money's worth.

Us armchair/theater seat psychologists will, naturally, say that this unbending need of kid-like Jackson to try to please everyone so he'll be "liked"/"loved" stems directly from having a very challenging childhood, as glimpsed in multiple flashbacks to his rough upbringing under the tyrannical rule of a demanding and unaffectionate father that raised him and his entire family to be better than the best—partially, perhaps, to achieve fame… and, perhaps, so that they could punch the family's ticket out of poverty. 

The show itself seems to be steering its narrative in that direction as well. The Michael Jackson characterized in this musical is definitely driven to always strive for perfection—perhaps out of self-doubt, perhaps out of a need to prove something to a figure in his life that always demanded nothing but the best, even if others have already deemed it so.

Menacing, gravel-voiced Joe Jackson (played boisterously by Devin Bowles) is gruff, dictatorial, short-tempered, and incapable of even the slightest bit of affection or pride, as he pushes and barks at his children to be superstars—especially to prepubescent young Michael (played by the adorable, terrific Bane Griffith on opening night), who, amongst the Jackson brood, seems to have been blessed with the most talent and natural charisma. Bowles, by the way, pulls off remarkable double-duty switching seamlessly back-and-forth as both father Joe and Michael's kinder, somewhat fatherly tour manager Rob… sometimes morphing discernibly from one character to another mid-sentence! 

The show, surprisingly, doesn't shy away from portraying Joe as a sort of monster. It is certainly a thunderous shock when Joe repeatedly berates his son for not following his demands in a satisfactory manor.  

Luckily, Jackson isn't completely unloved. Besides his siblings, Jackson's more affectionate mom Katherine (the lovely-voiced Anastasia Talley) is at least much more kind and loving to him. Still, it is heartbreaking to watch Katherine deal with her husband flirting with other women or treating the kids badly, yet remain in the marriage anyway for the sake of their children.

Jackson—whether on purpose or coincidentally—finds "proxy" father figures along the way as he continues his upward career trajectory. First, there's Motown founder Berry Gordy (J. Daughtry), who champions pre-teen Michael as a solo standout within the Jackson 5; later producer Quincy Jones (Josh A. Dawson) arrives on the scene to nurture the growing talent of a maturing, young adult Michael (played by the impressive Brandon Lee Harris), who helps him find and hone his crossover sound and artistic voice—the one that will eventually lead him to stratospheric album sales, awards recognition, and worldwide stardom.

The musical tries its best to dramatically recap much of these historical milestones in Jackson's life while, at the same time, giving due diligence to highlight the actual music that marked these moments. Generally, MJ - THE MUSICAL does a great job of showcasing these iconic songs, but understandably, not all of them will get the full treatment. Hence, medleys and short clips rule the day here. Those that do get the full treatment—like standouts "Beat It," "Billie Jean," "Smooth Criminal" (a spectacular vignette of neon lights and dynamic choreography), "Thriller" (the show's best number, hands down), and the anthemic and powerful "Man In The Mirror"—make the show absolutely worth experiencing. 

Visually, MJ - THE MUSICAL is an enthralling feast of lights and sounds that instantly morphs spaces from rehearsal halls and recording studios to movie sets and stadium arenas, aided by Derek McLane's outstanding scenic design, Natasha Katz's lighting design, and the use of imaginative animated projections designed by Peter Nigrini that envelope the stage with environments that feel like the stage is being immersed in one of Jackson's groundbreaking music videos. Here, "Thriller" literally thrilled, and that final scene before the show's encore—where, spoiler alert, Jackson finally gets his awesome "popping out of a toaster" moment—was befitting of a Jackson stage experience. 

And, no surprise, director Christopher Wheeldon's expressive, athletic choreography properly honors Jackson's own signature moves as well as the historical greats that inspired him, which this multi-talented, vigorously spirited cast attacks with forceful ferocity. I don't remember seeing a Broadway-style musical that's as energetically close to an expensive pop star concert as I have experienced here in MJ - THE MUSiCAL. During intermission, we even get a curtain emblazoned with Jackson's actual scribbled notes, detailing his desire to pay homage to great artists like Fred Astaire, Bob Fosse, and the Nicholas Brothers—which, of course, comes to life during the awesome opening of the second act. Jackson's visual language has always paid tribute to these influences with great reverence, which we get to see in this musical. 

And, as expected, the mixture of songs from different eras in Jackson's multi-decade career is such a nostalgic treat to see and hear here. Thanks to the new, made-for-Broadway orchestrations and arrangements by Jason Michael Webb and David Holcenberg, the cast recording of MJ - THE MUSICAL might now just be my go-to way of listening to Jackson's Greatest Hits. 

I especially loved watching the songs from his pre-Thriller days come to life on stage that include his adorably innocent-sounding lead vocals in Jackson 5 songs like "ABC," "I Want You Back," "The Love You Save," and the surprise mother-son duet on "I'll Be There," as well as his initial solo work with "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" and "Rock With You." I was also surprisingly touched by the haunting ballad "Stranger in Moscow" which gets a surprise highlight in the show.

But, of course, many of his songs from Bad and Thriller get the full-out, explosive treatments they deserve… which gets no complaints from me or the audience. By the time the show reaches a mini-megamix to end the show, it's just a full-on sing-along/dance party.

With so much music packed into the show already, a few songs, naturally, could not make the cut. Admittedly, while I was so happy a full number was dedicated to my all-time favorite Jackson song "Human Nature," I would've loved to have seen a depiction of the recording session for "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)" which would have necessitated cameo appearances from his sisters Janet and LaToya doing backup vocals (Michael's sisters barely get mentioned in the show). And I think the audience would've loved a number featuring "Remember the Time," Jackson's hit epic second single from Dangerous, which would have meant some more amazing costumes from designer Paul Tazewell, whose work here is phenomenal ("Smooth Criminal" and "Thriller" were total wow moments, sartorially speaking).

A bit of a head-scratcher though was devoting so much time on "For the Love of Money," a non-Jackson song made famous by the O'Jays to explain Joe's motivation for making Michael go back out on the road with this brothers after already making it big as a solo artist. I get it—it's a musical and that moment needed a song… but why another artist's song?

But as great as these musical numbers are, there's still the matter of the show's purpose-driven story omissions. Granted, the show is set in 1992, a year before the first of two headline-grabbing lawsuits against Jackson were brought to the courts (it should be noted that both the 1993 and 2005 cases filed against Jackson were fully investigated and found no evidence of criminal conduct). 

But the narrative has been so whittled down from really addressing Jackson's scandals (the media is often the go-to blame as well as prescription pills and having a cruel daddy) that the dialogue during the non-musical parts just ends up sounding like sanitized, motivational poster-sounding clichés, almost as if someone gathered up every fortune cookie message from a year's worth of meals and sprinkled them generously throughout the script. 

Does it take away from how enjoyable and entertaining this show is? Of course not. At the end of the day, MJ - THE MUSICAL succeeds in its unwavering presentation as a Michael Jackson jukebox musical focused on his craft and his vision. I guess one can argue that there are certainly lots of other pre-existing materials that address those other things avoided in this show.

The show-stopping center of this theatrical endeavor, though, is the hard-working, multi-talented, always full-out Jamaal Fields-Green, normally the "alternate" actor donning Jackson's penny loafers, who stepped up to the mic and wowed for the OC opening night performance (the role is usually played by Roman Banks).

Armed with Jackson's infamous high-pitched speaking cadence, palpable lyrical mannerisms, and a beautifully crisp tenor singing voice, Fields-Green is extremely convincing as the 90's version of the King of Pop, able to not only impress the audience but also earn their empathy and endearment. It's definitely a performance that makes you sit up and take notice, and is done so without even a hint of parody in its bones. His seemingly non-stop, perpetually caffeinated performance is noticeably aimed to recreate what Jackson must have been like as a person and as an artist—tenacious, driven, passionate, and, yes, a bit off-center. It was very hard taking your eyes off him, even during the moments when he's onstage merely as a passive observer "watching" his two fellow co-stars who play Michael at younger ages do their versions of Michael (for their part, Harris and Griffith are also superb). 

While MJ - THE MUSICAL might not have spilled all the tea that an unauthorized bio-musical would/should have, the show itself—filled with undeniably spectacular numbers and non-stop hits that got everyone grooving—does succeed in entertaining those willing to take it all in with less judgment, gently reminding them that before all the alleged controversies came to light (of which, to be fair, he was not convicted of or criminally charged), there was a true, thoughtful, if slightly off-center artist hard at work here, crafting some of the most iconic songs of a generation that will continue to hold their places in music history. 

If you've ever missed seeing the real Michael Jackson in concert back during his heyday—or are longing to relive the experience—this impressive new musical is a great way to get that fix.

* Follow this reviewer on Twitter-X / Instagram / Threads: @cre8iveMLQ *

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Photos by Matthew Murphy / MurphyMade, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

Performances of MJ - THE MUSICAL continues at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, CA through March 31, 2024. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org




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