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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Anya Ryan

MJ the Musical review – sterilised moonwalk through the King of Pop’s life

Myles Frost as Michael Jackson in MJ the Musical.
A shapeshifting force … Myles Frost as Michael Jackson in MJ the Musical. Photograph: Johan Persson/©Johan Persson

‘I want to keep this about my music,” says Michael Jackson in MJ the Musical. No surprise there. The musical, set during the rehearsal period of the Dangerous world tour in 1992 – coincidentally a year before any sexual allegations were made against him – seems to wipe away almost all the scandal that surrounded Jackson. Of course, it has moonwalks, one megahit after another and years’ worth of biography, but there’s a glaringly unpleasant absence. MJ the Musical is a sterilised swirl through the life of the King of Pop, but in reality, it is no black or white tale.

A musical recounting Jackson’s fame was always going to face an awkward challenge. First, there is the issue that every jukebox musical encounters: how to squeeze well-known songs into a succinct narrative? Then there is the itch to say something fresh about a figure who was a global phenomenon, yet also notoriously enigmatic. But these problems pale in comparison to the issue of Jackson’s own legacy. He was always a man of mystery and a deeply controversial one at that. Since the harrowing 2019 HBO documentary Leaving Neverland, it is hard to ignore the repeated allegations of child sexual abuse.

Yet Lynn Nottage’s script does just that and instead focuses on the mind of a troubled celebrity. Although Jackson feels uneasy about the press, his manager convinces him to let two MTV journalists make a documentary about the tour. They initially plan for it to be solely about Jackson’s musical journey. But as they watch him popping painkillers, requesting almost inconceivable stunts for his show and working his already exhausted crew into the ground, Jackson’s Peter Pan-like strangeness begins to creep to the surface. How can they possibly ignore his personal life in their reports?

Supported by the estate of Michael Jackson – who deny the allegations – the musical makes a case for the superstar’s privacy. There are crashing scenes of him being hounded at press conferences, with shattered video projection by Peter Nigrini. The journalists around him drip with hunger and desperation. Blame for Jackson’s megalomania is pushed on to his team: “Someone will have to tell him no,” they mutter. But never is the superstar solely at fault and his behaviour is largely left unchallenged.

Jackson (Myles Frost – a shapeshifting force) is plagued by visions of his father – there’s the sense that everything he does is to prove himself to him. We hurtle through his rise to fame, his early performances with the Jackson 5 and his later solo album recordings, his voice always a unique, entrancing wonder. His big hits are met with glee from the audience: Thriller contorts the stage into a garish nightmare, while the chorus version of Man in the Mirror has the woman next to me singing at the top of her lungs. As MJ the Musical’s wild ideas burst into a mesmerising reality, the stage becomes a hub of neon and gravity-defying dance moves.

It would be remiss to say Jackson’s songs do not possess an otherworldly magic. And with his fans still in abundance, this West End transfer is sure to sell tickets. But, can we really sit in a theatre and pretend his music can live on without scrutiny? Some might be able to separate Jackson’s art from the artist. But as Frost took his final bow and the audience leaped to their feet, I felt queasy – bad, even.

• At the Prince Edward theatre, London, until 7 December

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