How does MJ: The Musical, now playing at the Neil Simon, approach separating the much-troubled artist from his spectacular art? Answer: It moonwalks away from the issue as much as it can. The show is strategically set as the King of Pop puts 11th hour finishing touches on his Dangerous tour, in 1992–which is to say, a year before his alleged molestation of children came to light. A throwaway line–“Why are we taking a family on tour?”–is all we hear about that. It hangs in the air and evaporates, as the production moves on to the next big number.
Face it: Any esteemed playwright who takes on a jukebox job like this, even the two-time Pulitzer winner Lynn Nottage, is up against it, with estates, copyrights, and surviving family members and colleagues all having to be factored in, line by line. (The ones that ring true, that don’t seem to have a committee hovering backstage, are rare; examples include Jersey Boys and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.) Framed around the hoary device of an MTV interviewer and videographer asking questions on the final days of rehearsal, MJ does weigh in on his painkiller addiction, cash flow problems, and abuse by his philandering father Joe; other boxes checked range from his ownership of the Elephant Man bones and the Beatles catalog to his bad hair day on the ill-starred Victory tour (which I saw in Chicago) and skin issues. The last is the only one raised with any force, as Jackson, loath to discuss medical details with the media, proudly embraces his Blackness. The audience cheers…and not for the first time.
Leaving aside the unavoidable evasions of its book MJ is pretty good, and sometimes better than that. Working with and embroidering upon Jackson’s legendary choreography director Christopher Wheeldon, a Tony winner for the stage adaptation of An American in Paris, finds Neverland in Jackson’s work ethic. (Rich and Tone Talauega are credited with “Michael Jackson Movement.”) The rehearsal sequences, where the artist constructs his art with his dancers (as nervous producer hover), say more than a book ever could about the creative process. Less is consistently more, from Derek McLane’s simple-seeming set (which morphs into various environments from Jackson’s past as the show rifles through his unhappy childhood, more fulfilling alliances with father figures Berry Gordon and Quincy Jones, and supernova stardom) to a lovely rendition of “I’ll Be There,” performed by Michael, mom Katherine, and members of the ensemble. It’s a communal number intimately shared with the audience. The Act II opener, with Jackson taking the stage with his muses Fred Astaire, Bob Fosse, and the Nicholas Brothers, is particularly innovative, and will leave you wondering why this production, which showcases 25 songs, wasn’t a dance musical like Twyla Tharp’s classic Movin’ Out.
Book and subject collide toward the end, alas, with Jackson facing his fears in a reprise of “Thriller,” as the set transforms into a Nightmare Alley of a circus (or, if you will, the hilarious “Satan’s Alley” of the incomprehensible musical-within-the-movie Staying Alive). It’s a… questionable choice, one that strains the relative subtlety of what’s come before, even with all the iconic costume changes and colorful projections. But it can’t bring down Myles Frost, the star of the show. With the exception of Quentin Earl Darrington, who doubles as the traumatizing Joe and helpful, harried tour producer Rob, the cast is mostly backdrop, with the spotlight firmly planted on the former Voice contestant making his Broadway debut. He’s sensational, and his chameleonic performance, slipping in and out of gloves and jackets and disguises, brings out what’s best in MJ and obscures the rest.