Review: MJ at the Peace Center

"Thrilling" dance moves abound in Michael Jackson musical.

By: Sep. 21, 2023
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Where do you even begin when telling the life story of the most successful entertainer of all time? Is creativity, which inherently involves MJ, the bio-musical about Michael Jackson that just opened at Greenville’s Peace Center, tells the story of his life by telling the story of his work. It’s a compelling production thanks to its cast and combined with some good staging. And while it was to expected that only a great leading man could successfully play the “Thriller” singer—which this one does—the pleasant surprise was how the ensemble was equally up to the task of telling Jackson’s story, framed around a single concert rehearsal.

Of course, you are wondering, who could possibly fill Michael Jackson’s enormous loafers? As the King of Pop, Roman Banks (High School Musical: The Musical: The Series) delivers. He sings especially well, with vocals that mimic Jackson’s organically rather than feeling like a hollow impression. As an actor, he also becomes increasingly dynamic throughout as his character—thoroughly reserved, to put it mildly—slowly shows signs of opening up. Banks was not the only Michael, however. In Jackson’s memories, the charming actors Ethan Joseph (on for the role Wednesday evening) and Brandon Lee Harris portray Jackson as a kid and a big kid respectively. Harris in particular demonstrates a synergy with Banks such that you easily forget they’re not the same person.

Ensembles are typically underappreciated, but MJ’s needs flowers urgently. They dazzle with talent, playing the worker bees that, in the world of Jackson’s mind, act out his visions. Chief among them are those who stand in for Michael’s parents. As both tour manager Rob and the memory of patriarch Joe Jackson, Devin Bowles flits between the two with effortless dexterity, scarcely needing the new jacket to clearly differentiate roles. It was like watching two different souls possess a single body, Jekyll-and-Hyde style. And in key moments, Anastasia Talley, playing a backup singer imagined as mother Katherine Jackson, unleashes powerhouse vocals that, in real life, should mean backup singers of her own. And these are only two of the supporting roles.

The rest of the ensemble, cast by imagination as the other Jackson brothers, reporters, etc., give their all and bring life to the concept of this telling. One great example of this was they become a montage of Motown acts on the child Michael’s TV. Even in the briefest flashes, they dare you not to be impressed with all the different hats they wear inside Michael’s head, among the most prominent being Jackson producers Berry Gordy (J. Daughtry) and Quincy Jones (swing Jahir Hipps at this performance). Though we’ve all surely been guilty of overlooking the ensemble, in this case it truly would be a crime.

Such a talented company as MJ's was in good hands with director Christopher Wheeldon, already a titan of ballet before he ventured onto Broadway with An American in Paris. For all the spectacle of lighting and sound in the bigger numbers, still better were the moments where Wheeldon holds back just a little. The sequence preceding “Smooth Criminal”, which was the height of theatricality while retaining a lightness of touch that really plays to Wheeldon’s strengths. Peter Nigrini’s superb projections and Derek McLane’s smart scenery are also key in realizing Wheeldon’s character study of a fellow dancer.

As much as MJ is about entertaining, it is executed with finesse by the company, making it sure to be enjoyed. And focusing on Jackson’s work certainly makes sense because, especially at such stratospheric heights of celebrity, Jackson’s life was his work in most ways, for better or worse. If you enjoy that work at all, you’re sure to be thrilled.

The national tour of MJ runs at the Peace Center Concert Hall now through September 24th. Tickets are available at Click Here.

Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

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From This Author - Elizabeth Cortes

Elizabeth Cortes is excited and grateful to be joining BroadwayWorld! A writer and visual artist, with a passion for the craft of musical theatre, she has been involved in a variety of positions ... Elizabeth Cortes">(read more about this author)


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