Lauded and beloved by fans around the globe as one of the world’s best-selling music artists in history and one of the most successful entertainers of all time, with an unsurpassed number of awards and 39 titles in the Guinness Book of World Records to his name (including the most philanthropic pop star on earth), Michael Jackson is now the subject of the all-new Broadway jukebox, dance, and bio-musical MJ at the Neil Simon Theatre. Written by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage, directed and choreographed by Tony Award winner Christopher Wheeldon, and presented by special arrangement with The Estate of Michael Jackson, the show, featuring a score of 37 of his (and some of his contemporaries’) most iconic chart-topping hits, is an electrifying and poignant tribute to the legendary King of Pop and his extraordinary talent, with empathetic insights into the pain and pressure he endured from the time of the childhood he never really had. It also provides a star-is-born vehicle for lead actor Myles Frost, a Maryland native whose breathtaking perfection on stage is in total sync with that of his eponymous role.
On February 3, 1992, Jackson held a press conference at Radio City Music Hall announcing his upcoming Dangerous World Tour, with the goal of raising $100 million for his charitable Heal The World Foundation (he did, in fact, play to more than four million people, gross $140 million, and donate all the proceeds to the now defunct humanitarian organization). The making of that tour provides the central theme and setting of MJ, interspersed with accounts, flashbacks, and re-enactments of the backstory of his life, his greatest inspirations, and the highlights of his career (including such classics as “Billie Jean,” “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough,” “Man in the Mirror,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” and “Thriller”), along with the workings of his creative mind and drive that resulted in the signature sound and unparalleled moves that cemented his superstar status.
In an absolute thriller of a Broadway debut, Frost turns in a thoroughly dazzling performance, faultlessly capturing Jackson’s soft and childlike speaking voice, famed vocals, and uniquely original dance and body movements that caused a sensation in his TV, video, and concert appearances, from the staccato hip thrusts to the smooth spins and moonwalk that became synonymous with his immortal style. He also affectingly delivers the haunting emotions and perfectionist mindset of the artist, with a telling mix of vulnerability, determination, and unexpected touches of eccentric humor.
Frost’s spectacular, sensitive, and award-worthy portrayal is supported by an across-the-board exceptional cast. In go-back scenes and memories of his younger time with the Jackson Five, Little Michael is played by the remarkable Christian Wilson (on the date I attended, alternating with Walter Russell III), and later, in his early days as a solo performer, by the equally impressive Tavon Olds-Sample. Both nail the songs and the stylings that set him apart from his brothers and peers, and the psychological damage done by his insulting and abusive father Joseph, who pushed him to excess, but never showed him love.
Quentin Earl Darrington makes dramatic shifts between his dual roles of the intensely controlling Joseph Jackson and Michael’s concerned manager Rob, whose caring advice and suggestions about safety, finances, overwork, and pill-addiction trigger thoughts in the mind of the star of past episodes with his father, often requiring Darrington to transition instantaneously between the two, and clearly distinguishing them with effective characterizations of their antithetical personalities. And Ayana George as Katherine Jackson, Michael’s mother, brings her beautiful voice to tender moments of support for her young son, while still explaining and defending the actions and motivations of her brutal husband to the boy.
The rest of the large supporting cast and ensemble of dancers and singers (with musical supervision, orchestrations, and arrangements by David Holcenberg, and musical direction, orchestrations, and arrangements by Jason Michael Webb) also contributes masterfully to the incomparable quality of the Broadway production. Among the standouts is John Edwards as both MJ’s brother Jackie, harmonizing and moving with the Jackson Five, and as James Brown, delivering a blockbuster vocal solo.
Other significant figures in the musical narrative – and in Michael’s stressful existence – are members of the press (one of whom, we are reminded, referred to him as “Wacko Jacko”), including featured actors Whitney Bashor as interviewer Rachel and Gabriel Ruiz as cameraman Alejandro, who constantly invade his personal space and privacy and overstep the conditions of their MTV taping (which was intended to be about the music), and other tenacious reporters at a press conference for the world tour, who raise questions about the devastating allegations being made against Jackson, which would come to dominate the news within the next year.
A stellar design team recreates the authentic look and feel of Jackson and his times, with spot-on costumes by Paul Tazwell, hair and wigs by Charles Lapointe, sets by Derek McLane, projections by Peter Nigrini, lighting by Natasha Katz, and sound design by Gareth Owen, all adding to the excitement of the high-energy performances and the ebullient celebration of his phenomenal talent. Song after song, dance after dance, garnered wildly enthusiastic standing ovation after standing ovation on the night I was there (30 years to the day of the Dangerous World Tour announcement) – all well-deserved by the astounding cast and creators, and indicative of the abiding love fans have for the King of Pop and his groundbreaking music.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including an intermission.
MJ plays an open-ended run at the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $59-299), call (212) 757-8646, or go online. Everyone must show proof of COVID-19 vaccination to enter the building and must wear a mask when inside.