MJ: The Musical

MJ: The Musical Cover

MJ: The Musical emerges as a radiant gem, revolving around the musical legacy of Michael Jackson. Crafted by Lynn Nottage and featuring Roman Banks embodying the essence of the King of Pop, this jukebox musical is a captivating journey through various struggles of Michael's life, whilst highlighting the best of the music that he created. I was able to catch MJ: The Musical at The Hobby Center in Houston, Texas, during its Texas premiere on Tuesday, November 14, 2023, after the tour had been delayed due to current events.

The narrative, centered around Michael's mental and financial struggles during the production of the 1992 Dangerous World Tour, takes a look into the intricacies of the man behind the moonwalk. While some critics argue the dialogue in the script is heavy-handed, I would argue that this clarity provided a comprehensive look into the complex emotional landscape of an icon who was under immense pressure. The script, though straightforward, fearlessly confronts the labyrinth of emotions Michael grappled with, delivering a level of insight that might be overlooked in a more nuanced performance. It's a well-communicated story that newcomers will easily be able to follow along with.

Let's pivot to the heart of the production—the music. The song selections, plucked from the vast Michael Jackson discography, are a resounding triumph. From The Jackson 5's infectious hits to Michael's solo chart-toppers, the musical numbers create an infectiously catchy roller-coaster that spans generations. Even if the plot fails to capture your attention, the magnetic pull of the musical performances alone will have you swaying to the rhythm and singing softly along. The electrifying choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, paired with these iconic hits, breathes life into the performance, creating so many mesmerizing spectacles that will leave the audience spellbound.

Derek McLane's scenic design is a visual marvel. A seamless fusion of technology, practical sets, and props breathe life into each scene. One standout moment at the end of Act One involves pieces of cut-out fabric and projections forming what looks like broken pieces of glass with newspaper headlines projected on them surrounding MJ and his dancers. This immaculate set provided a visually stunning backdrop that had much vibrant depth for Michael's passionate performance. Other standout moments involved moving mirrors during Man in the Mirror and giant letters on wheels that made it look like characters were standing behind the iconic Los Angeles Hollywood sign.

This production features nonlinear storytelling; the occasional flashbacks to Michael's formative years and early career inject depth into the narrative, offering valuable insights into the challenges faced by a young black artist breaking into the industry (Josiah Benson and Jamaal Fields-Green portray young Michael and middle-aged Michael respectively). We also see how the pressure Michael's father (Devin Bowles) put on his family affected the way that Michael sought perfection, which many thought was unhealthy. The way the production shifts the lighting to indicate a flashback is occurring is genius and the timing of the flashbacks helps the audience understand the emotions Michael is feeling in the present. It would have been extremely intriguing to delve into Michael's later stages in life, including his legal troubles and unfortunate passing so that way this would serve as an encompassing production of his entire life, but the decision to focus on the height of his musical career is understandable, respecting and honoring one of the greatest entertainers of all time.

The audience enjoyed Roman Banks' exceptional portrayal of Michael Jackson. Banks not only captures the essence of the King of Pop's vocal talent but also embodies his mannerisms, speaking voice, and cadence, immersing the audience in a performance that feels both intimate and authentic. Michael's also a comical character that Banks gets just right; the character appears to use humor to deflect from the pain he is feeling within (from dressing up as a janitor in order to creep up on a publicist, randomly pulling out a water gun on one of the characters he interacts with, and telling one of his managers that they have to complete his vision before Prince steals the idea; these all got big laughs from the audience).

In conclusion, MJ: The Musical may have garnered mixed reviews, but as a musical enthusiast and critic valuing clarity and audacity in storytelling, I would confidently advocate that this production is a triumphant celebration of Michael Jackson's enduring legacy. From the spellbinding music to the magnetic performances, MJ: The Musical secures its place among my top favorites (sitting right next to Hamilton, Wicked, Book of Mormon, and School of Rock), offering an experience that transcends the boundaries of traditional musical theater. It's a testament to the everlasting impact of an icon who moonwalked his way into the hearts of generations.

This production is playing in Houston, TX until November 19, 2023, at The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.

Final Verdict:A Mesmerizing Tribute to Michael Jackson's Enduring Legacy