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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Nick Curtis

MJ the Musical at Prince Edward Theatre review: a ravishing spectacle if you ignore the elephant in the room

The best and worst thing about this exhilarating Michael Jackson musical is that it *almost* makes you forget the elephant in the room.

We’re taken by Myles Frost’s spellbinding ‘MJ’ on a hectic ride through the King of Pop’s backstory and back catalogue as he prepares for his Dangerous tour in 1992 – when he was a painkiller-addicted, chimp-befriending, nose-whittled oddball who had not yet been publicly accused of sexually abusing children.

If you can blind yourself to this moral sophistry, Christopher Wheeldon’s production is a superlatively directed and choreographed piece of absolute pizzaz.

Beat It, Smooth Criminal, Thriller, Can You Feel It? – the hits from a stunning 43-year body of work keep on coming, accompanied with precision-drilled evocations of groundbreaking dance routines.

By having a nosey MTV crew filming the rehearsals for Dangerous, writer Lynn Nottage gets to deftly intertwine Jackson’s life and his art.

That he and his seven siblings were thrust as children under the magnifying glass of fame in a racist industry by their violent, controlling Jehovah’s Witness father Joe partly explains his strangeness. Mentions of his Heal the World children’s foundation remind us his artistic legacy has been irrevocably tainted.

(Johan Persson)

That the show still works is largely down to the half-quicksilver, half-machine performance of Frost, who originated the role of MJ on Broadway and won every award going.

Child actors play Michael in his Jackson Five boyhood, and Mitchell Zhangazha breathily incarnates his rise to solo stardom. But this is Frost’s tour de force, and he not only captures Jackson’s stunning vocals and dance moves but also his hunched offstage singularity – adolescent diffidence masking messianic control-freakery.

Wheeldon surrounds him with a formidable ensemble, whose every hip-switch and shoulder-pop is finely calibrated. There’s neat doubling of roles, another sophisticated touch in his and Nottage’s organisation of the story.

Affable but stressed choreographer Rob (Ashley Zhangazha, Mitchell’s brother) morphs into monstrous paterfamilias Joe: others peel off from the troupe to play Motown boss Berry Gordy, Quincy Jones and so on.

The orchestrations are superb but weirdly, given the fierce perfectionism of the staging, some vocals were behind the beat at the performance I saw.

Natasha Katz’s sculptural lighting and Derek McLane’s gorgeous backdrops – the Harlem Apollo, Manhattan and Hollywood cityscapes, a Tim Burton graveyard for Thriller – showcase Wheeldon’s dynamic arrangement of bodies in space.

The show builds towards a joyful dramatic coup before the curtain about which I’ll say just two words: toaster lift.

You leave ravished by the spectacle of it all, with countless earworms lodged in your head, and then the moral dubiousness of the enterprise sinks back in.

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