‘MJ’ Review: Flashy Michael Jackson Musical Packs in the Hits, but Struggles to Get Behind the Music

In answer to the question of whether it’s possible to separate the art from the artist, “MJ” performs a slick, crotch-grabbing sidestep. Packed with nearly 40 hits from Michael Jackson’s irresistible catalogue, the Broadway production from director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon is not so much a biomusical as a high-shine and surface-skimming rehabilitation tour for its late subject, flattening rather than reckoning with his complex legacy.

“With respect, I wanna keep this about my music,” insists Jackson early on, played in the story’s present day by Myles Frost, impressive in perhaps an impossible role. Jackson is speaking to an MTV documentary crew, a journalist (Whitney Bashor) and cameraman (Gabriel Ruiz), observing rehearsals for the 1992 Dangerous World Tour. Flashbacks ensue, dissolving, somewhat claustrophobically, back into the rehearsal room each time. The narrative premise from book writer Lynn Nottage (Pulitzer winner for “Ruined” and “Sweat”) creates a suggestion of scrutiny, though the results are less than revelatory.

Jackson reluctantly recounts his childhood in the Jackson 5, how his soulful voice dazzled from the start, and especially how his father Joe (Quentin Earl Darrington, who doubles as Jackson’s manager in the present) could be exacting, merciless and abusive. Joe’s cruelty, which easily overshadows loving support from Michael’s mother Katherine (vocal powerhouse Ayana George), is figured as the star’s formative and enduring trauma, an obstacle he wrestles with but struggles to overcome.

Joe molded Michael into a perfectionist, and nailing every song on his upcoming tour with over-the-top flourish is Michael’s driving intention. That’s how the production delivers one rousing number after another — hits like “Beat It,” “Billy Jean” and “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” — without yoking their contents to his biography, also following Jackson into the recording studio as he seizes on the unique sound for “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.”

Songs that are actually linked to the story convey a clear message from an artist who feels both defensive and misunderstood. “Just because you read it in a magazine/ Or see it on a TV screen, don’t make it factual,” Jackson replies to the doc crew, lamenting “The Price of Fame.” Later, at a press conference filled with what the script calls “aggressive reporters,” Jackson defiantly sings “They Don’t Really Care About Us,” drowning out personal questions with broad calls for social justice.

It seems to have been a go-to maneuver; Jackson tells his company that he wants to donate $100 million in tour profits to charity by the end of 1993, the same year allegations first surfaced against him of child sexual abuse. (Since development for “MJ” was announced in 2018, “Leaving Neverland,” a documentary released the following year, detailed accounts from two men who allege Jackson abused them as children starting in 1988 and 1990.)

Produced by special arrangement with the Michael Jackson estate, “MJ” narrows in on a troubled time for the artist, apparently for the sake of depicting him as a victim of the tabloid press and presenting an oblique denial of unspecified wrongdoing, referred to only briefly as “recent allegations.” (“MJ” does concede that Jackson took pain pills, though they have no discernible impact on his behavior.)

While Jackson’s songs cry out with desire at high registers, all he seems to want here is success, and more of the fame that’s already devouring him. (The cost of the tour, and whether he’ll be able to execute a grand entrance, are dominant present-day concerns.) And while his father Joe is figured as a predatory womanizer, Jackson is unsexed, childlike and without libido. It’s an uncomfortable deflection that keeps the character’s humanity at a forced remove and hollows out the story’s core.

But maybe it’s the closest to portraiture we can expect of an idol worshiped for his ambiguity and artifice as much as his soul.

Jackson’s music, orchestrated and arranged here by Jason Michael Webb and David Holcenberg, reverberates behind the rib cage and remains undeniable. Vocal performances by Frost, and the actor playing young Michael of the Jackson 5 (Christian Wilson at the performance reviewed), are stunning feats of likeness and skill. Frost makes nimble work of Wheeldon’s choreography, hip pops, neck flicks and flowy footwork (yes, including the Moonwalk) inspired by instantly recognizable moves (several choreographers are credited with special thanks).

“MJ” delivers on its promise of fan service, from costume pieces by Paul Tazewell — that glittery glove and cocked black hat — to nostalgic trips through Soul Train and “Thriller” nights on Derek McLane’s set. But Wheeldon and Nottage make a show of gesturing behind the music only to insist that their contested subject had nothing to hide.

The demons that Jackson battles in “MJ,” his father and the media, are figured as monstrous. But if there was darkness behind the angelic falsetto, a mix of light and shadow that made Michael Jackson a singular artist, “MJ” enacts a sleight of hand, insisting it didn’t belong to him. It’s a renouncement worthy enough of a smooth criminal.

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