There's no question that Thriller Live is a genuine crowd-pleaser. But is it the answer? It depends on what you want the West End to stand for. Is it a place to showcase the best in world theatre, or just a home for mindless but colourful variety spectacles?
Actually, let's not to be too snobbish. There's room for both. I may personally miss the fact that the Lyric Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue -- one of the best, most perfectly proportioned playhouses in town -- has been lost to straight plays for the last five and a half years, but meanwhile a totally different audience has been drawn inside a West End theatre, possibly for the first time. That's not necessarily a bad result.
And the legacy of Michael Jackson is such that it is an audience of all ages, colours and nationalities that come to the Lyric to celebrate his incredible repertoire. (I am particularly struck by how many youngsters were in attendance, and not just dragged there by parents but who actually knew every song. So the audience for this show is endlessly renewable, too). The show has become a living memorial to him, and there's even a plaque in the theatre's foyer now marking his death that acts as informal shrine for people to leave flowers at.
His early death -- on the eve of a planned London comeback with a series of concerts announced for the O2 Arena -- occurred on June 25, 2009. This loud, garish and occasionally grating tribute show opened in the West End less than six months earlier, on January 2, 2009, after a few prior one-off London dates and a national tour.
I have to admit I wasn't too taken by it originally -- it felt then, as it does now, rather unimaginatively put together as a more or less unbroken stream of numbers, accompanied by a vigorous but uninspiring choreography, with some very perfunctory narration in between about the overall genius of Jackson, but no mention of his well-documented troubles at all).
But watching it again now, I realise that it aspires to be no more than a slickly performed sound and light tribute show, and it ticks all of those boxes effortlessly. A teaming cast of terrific vocalists (now including 90s child pop singer Cleopatra Higgins, former boy band singer Haydon Eshun, and West End performers Ricardo Alfonso and John Moabi) and sensational dancers keep the temperature high, even if the show feels repetitious and a bit relentless.
All the hits are here -- Man in the Mirror, Billie Jean, Bad, Don't Stop Till You Get Enough, Can You Feel It etc -- and more (yes, Heal the World is in there, too). And they're still amongst the biggest hits in the pop world: according to a recent news report, his estate has earned over $700m from his work since his death -- more than that of Jay Z, Taylor Swift and Kanye West combined (who between them have taken in $544m). He's made more since his death (when he was in serious debt) than he ever made during his lifetime.
This show is part of that money-making machine. And it shows no signs of slowing down.
Original review cuttings from Jan 2009
What the popular press had to say.....
"It's cute, kicking and retro, but also highlights a danger that looms large in this show: that even as a tot, Jackson was supremely gifted performer - both as a singer and a dancer - and this tribute, however well intended, inevitably pales by comparison."
Sanjy Roy for The Guardian
"This is very much an ensemble company and the dance team here deserve a special mention...some of the set pieces, particularly the Billie Jean/Thriller/Bad set are, quite literally, thrilling."
Paul Vale for The Stage
"Thrilling, certainly, but empty, too."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard
"A glitzy concert of song and dance...a great night out, though the excessive running time means that it doesn't stop until you've had more than enough."
Charles Spencer for Daily Telegraph
"There's no fictional conceit stitching the songs together in Adrian Grant's “celebration” of Michael Jackson's music. Instead, a barrage of awards and sales statistics (flashed up in graphics on a screen) punctuate set pieces featuring a revolving cast of six singers."
Benedict Nightingale for The Times
"A hugely enjoyable, gloriously upbeart, high energy show."
Julie Carpenter for The Daily Express
"Immensely enjoyable compilation of the Michael Jackson catalogue...It's a shame that Gary Lloyd's production has no theatrical justification whatsoever, but the presentation is so enjoyably theatrical that the objection disintegrates."
Michael Coveney for The Independent