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REVIEW: Musically Stellar MJ (HTT/Orpheum Theatre)

Brandon Lee Harris as ‘Michael’ Josh A. Dawson as ‘Quincy Jones’ Roman Banks as ‘MJ’ and the cast of the MJ First National Tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy/MurphyMade.

The touring Broadway musical MJ is more than a show about Michael Jackson’s life, it is the Michael Jackson experience with an enthused audience playing a critical role as part of the show.  The book for the musical was written by the two-time Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage with the music provided by the Michael Jackson estate.  The musical opened on Broadway in 2021 where it won four Tony Awards, including Best Actor in a Musical, Best Choreography, Best Lighting Design and Best Sound Design.

The opening premise is that Jackson is preparing his musical numbers for his Dangerous World Tour, a multi-continent event that kicked off in 1992. (The record-breaking charity concert tour, Jackson’s second world tour, was seen by more than 3.5 million people in an era well before today’s current megastar concert tours.) Nottage uses Dangerous and the music to tell the story of the young Michael through his songs with the Jackson Five, including his adversarial relationship with his father Joseph Jackson who used physical abuse to drive Michael and his brothers to stardom.  The musical features three snapshots of the title character: a young Michael, a teenage Michael, and the adult MJ.

Jaylen Lyndon Hunter as ‘Little Marlon’ Ethan Joseph as ‘Little Michael’ and the cast of the MJ First National Tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy/MurphyMade.

Nottage’s book has limited success as drama. Given what is now publicly known about Jackson – including his death by overdose – the in-show fact that a MTV reporter learned that MJ uses drugs, prescription or otherwise, and plans to expose it does not create much in the way of dramatic tension. This is especially true since Jackson had more explosive allegations made against him after the tour, including the public accusations of child abuse.  Similarly, Nottage’s attempt to cause drama with MJ’s perfectionism resulting in astronomical costs forcing him to mortgage his Netherland home just falls short, since it is common knowledge that the tour was a financial success.

MJ has two alternative leads playing the MJ role, with Roman Banks getting the larger print in the program, but the performance I attended had Jamaal Fields-Green playing the lead.  Fields-Green does a fabulous job at playing MJ, especially with his athletic dancing. Another cast standout is Devin Bowles who easily switches between the roles of stage manager for the tour and the role of Michael Jackson’s father Joseph Jackson.

Josiah Benson as ‘Little Michael’ and Anastasia Talley as ‘Katherine Jackson’ in the MJ First National Tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy/MurphyMade.

The musical numbers are where the show succeeds best.  Jackson’s early music videos on MTV, especially “Billy Jean” and “Thriller” had me hooked on his showmanship.  The one new thing that I did learn from the musical was that Jackson openly admitted that Bob Fosse’s choreography directly influenced his work.  MJ and the stage dancers wonderfully recreate his songs and dancing, drawing the audience in with every song.  MJ’s subtle actions, such as the movement of his arms, feet and hat, made his choreography such a standout in music videos and concerts.  The show’s audience recreates an enthusiastic concert audience that at the end gave the show close to a ten-minute standing ovation as if it expected an encore.

The technical aspects of the show compliment and bolster the song/dance numbers.  Natasha Katz’s lighting design rolls with the music and further enhances the concert effect.  Derek McLane’s scenic design has much more memorabilia intricacies during the flashback scenes than first appears.  A nice touch was a television screen in the background replaying the Jacksons’ Five cartoon show from the 1970s.

Roman Banks as ‘MJ’ and the cast of the MJ First National Tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy/MurphyMade.

MJ was done with the cooperation of the Michael Jackson’s estate, so it is unlikely that a show with access to Jackson’s music will provide a more candid portrayal of Jackson’s varied life, flaws and all.  But for those of us who never saw Jackson live in concert, seeing MJ will probably be the closest we will get to the concert experience.

MJ plays at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, MN through May 26, 2024.

Bev Wolfe