Roman Banks as "MJ" and the Cast of the MJ First National Tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Michael Jackson, known as the “king of pop,” lived a fascinating life and bestowed many iconic songs on the world. Now, the musical legend has been further immortalized in MJ, a multiple Tony Award-winning musical created by Christopher Wheeldon, who also serves as director and choreographer, and Lynn Nottage. This musical, onstage for the first time at the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC), doesn’t tackle the gargantuan task of unraveling Michael’s entire life. Instead, it takes an in-depth look at the days leading up to Jackson’s 1992 Dangerous World Tour . . . and, through flashbacks, some of the most pivotal moments in Jackson’s earlier life and career.
This riveting story bursts to life with Michael Jackson (Roman Banks) singing “Beat It.” Right away, viewers are struck by two things: the perfectly executed, larger-than-life choreography and Banks’ incredible appeal, charm, and resemblance to the real Michael.
As the script moves from song to story—MJ is meeting with an interviewer, Rachel (Mary Kate Moore)—the audience gets glimpses into MJ’s troubled childhood days. They see a small (and adorable) Michael, portrayed by the precious Josiah Benson, sing along with the Jackson 5. Viewers also look on sadly as they witness his harsh treatment at the hands of his father, Joseph, believably portrayed by Devin Bowles, who also tackles the role of Rob, MJ’s manager. This double-casting is no coincidence and serves as a subtle but powerful reminder of the constant influence MJ’s father had on his life. In fact, this is just one of many choices that effectively connects MJ's art with his life. A later scene, where Michael dances in front of and almost to his fighting parents, is particularly chilling in its intensity.
Impactful moments like these are the norm, not the exception, as the production swiftly takes viewers through the building-block stages of MJ’s life. And, while it’s easy to get lost in Banks’ mesmerizing performance, other cast members shine as well, including Anastasia Talley in her turn as Katherine Jackson, Michael’s mother. Her angelic voice and soft nature really shine through on the “I’ll Be There” number.
However, every musical number makes an impact, especially when coupled with the stunning effects. Background projections, haunting mirrors, and flashing lights all add to the abstract, surreal feel of the musical and transport viewers into MJ’s world.
Ultimately, a careful blend of fact and insight work to create a musical that’s more sympathetic than scandalous and one that showcases some of the most poignant moments in MJ’s life. And, while there are certainly explosive dance numbers and big musical hits, what shines the most is the up-close-and-personal look at the pop icon, all poised against the viewer’s knowledge of what is to come.
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