'MJ The Musical' review – this criminally smooth Michael Jackson tribute is unbeatable entertainment

Read our review of MJ The Musical, directed by Christopher Wheeldon, now in performances at the Prince Edward Theatre to 7 December.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

The King of Pop is back in the astonishing form of Myles Frost, who won a Tony Award for his Michael Jackson on Broadway and is now leading the West End cast of the mega-hit bio-musical MJ. Never mind “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough”: Christopher Wheeldon’s turbo-charged company hardly pause for breath in this epic thriller of a tribute.

The show begins in 1992 with Jackson in the final stage of rehearsals for his make-or-break Dangerous tour. We are told (repeatedly) about the staggering scale involved, but also the potentially ruinous financial risk. When challenged on an outlandish addition, his nifty rejoinder is “If we don’t do it, God will give this idea to Prince.”

Lynn Nottage’s book takes this uncompromising creative vision seriously. The show is a reclamation of Jackson the artist, the man who diligently analysed other people’s successful work, who had the foresight to shift into new genres, and who, in a truly glorious sequence here, pays tribute to his dance heroes: Fred Astaire, Bob Fosse, the Nicholas Brothers.

But can you separate the music from his life? That’s a question that this musical asks explicitly, and also by glaring omission. By ending in 1992, MJ avoids addressing the allegations of child abuse and Jackson’s increasingly eccentric behaviour – presumably the price for getting backing from the singer’s estate.

Instead, the show casts, as the villains of the piece, journalists asking valid questions of a controversial public figure; a press conference turns into a horror movie. There’s also a clunky framing device involving an MTV documentary crew, who are mainly there to provide gushing exposition.

Those issues aside, Nottage’s script is rigorous, and effective, in showing how Jackson’s difficult childhood both traumatised and shaped him. His father Joseph is a controlling, violent bully, but one who understands their uphill climb as Black artists. The relentless perfectionism he instils in Jackson is unsustainable, especially when fuelled by pill-popping – and yet it does lead him to greatness.

Wheeldon’s remarkably slick staging constantly elides past and present. As Jackson rehearses his older songs, we’re whisked between the rehearsal studio and, say, following the Jackson 5 on the road. David Holcenberg and Jason Michael Webb’s gorgeous, emotionally charged arrangements transcend the jukebox formula: Jackson’s duet with his mother Katherine (the sensational Phebe Edwards) on “I’ll Be There” is a real highlight, as is a gospel-tinged “Man in the Mirror”.

This hugely confident, criminally smooth show takes unexpected swings, like staging “Thriller” in a fresh and dramatically satisfying way. “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” is a jaw-dropping sequence in which Studio 54 springs up (fluid design by Derek McLane and dynamite lighting by Natasha Katz). But Jackson fans will also find it ticks all the nostalgia boxes: the iconic costumes (courtesy of Paul Tazewell), the familiar hits, the moonwalk.

Throughout, Frost really is the Second Coming of Michael Jackson. He has the soft, fluting speaking voice nailed, as well as those perfectly creamy vocals and the mesmerising physicality every time he takes to the dance floor – from the razor-sharp accents and isolations to the serene, otherworldly floating. Just him doing “Billie Jean” is worth the price of admission.

He’s supported by a blisteringly talented, constantly shapeshifting company who have the stamina of Olympians. Among them, Ashley Zhangazha fascinatingly switches between Jackson’s dad and his tour director, illustrating Jackson’s lingering issue with male authority figures (he also works with, and then separates from, Berry Gordy and Quincy Jones). Mitchell Zhangazha is superb as the adolescent Jackson. When he and Frost join forces, it’s both heart-rending and sublime.

What Wheeldon’s elegantly fleet-footed production best honours is Jackson the ultimate showman, the artist who (psychologically troubling though it may be) really felt love when giving his all to audiences. The likewise awe-inspiring MJ is unbeatable entertainment.

MJ The Musical is at the Prince Edward Theatre through 7 December. Book MJ The Musical tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: MJ The Musical (Photo by Johan Persson)

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