“MJ” Thrills KC as First National Tour Arrives at the Music Hall

Roman Banks as ‘MJ’ and the cast of the MJ First
National Tour. (Matthew Murphy)

The legend of Michael Jackson, the late, great, venerated, and complicated King of Pop, is a formidable subject for the traditionally simple formula of a jukebox bio-musical. Yet MJ, making its Music Hall debut as part of the PNC Broadway in Kansas City season, greatly succeeds, thanks to its beloved source material, as well as seamless stagecraft and a little suspension of disbelief. In the Tony-winning show’s first national tour, an immensely and evenly talented company, directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, delivers a sensationally satisfying experience—highly entertaining, and ultimately innocuous.

As one might expect for a production that worked hand-in-sequined-glove “by special arrangement with the Estate of Michael Jackson,” the image reflected is nuanced, but noble. The man in this mirror is a misunderstood genius whose talents will transform music, dance, and global pop culture, and whose demons drive him to a multitude of extravagant and odd behaviors—but nothing that would tarnish a legacy. Neverland Ranch, Bubbles the Chimp, hyperbaric chambers, plastic surgery, rumors of skin-bleaching, financial distress, even addiction—all are relatively fair game. Charges of child sexual assault—not so much. (Jackson was ultimately acquitted on all counts, though new allegations persisted even after his death.)

Lynn Nottage, the Pulitzer-winning, boundary-pushing playwright, does an admirable job working within these limits. Her inventive book handily avoids addressing the biggest scandals by setting the show before they’d broken, and then makes sure to flash back but never forward.

MJ begins in 1992 in a warehouse-like rehearsal space, days ahead of the launch of Jackson’s “Dangerous” world tour. Before the house lights dim, the company of backup dancers wanders onstage to stretch, à la A Chorus Line. Into this ongoing warmup, the title character enters almost nonchalantly (albeit to roaring cheers from the audience). Roman Banks is a bit shorter and boasts a healthier BMI than the real Michael Jackson, but embodies his moves, his mannerisms, and even his feathery voice to near perfection. And seconds later, when he breaks into the chorus of “Beat It,” the spell is cast for the remainder of the evening.

A fictional MTV producer (Mary Kate Moore) is on hand to record a behind-the-scenes documentary—a “puff piece,” according to her cameraman sidekick (Da’Von T. Moody), though she claims to want something more in-depth. Her interview questions trigger memories of Jackson’s career milestones and mentors, and clever double-casting allows quick-change blasts to the past: the early days with the Jackson 5, meeting Motown’s Berry Gordy, going solo and collaborating with Quincy Jones on Off the Wall and Thriller, leading to a small mountain of Grammy Awards. As MJ, Banks narrates these out-of-body experiences, with Josiah Benson (alternating with Bane Griffith as Little Michael) and Brandon Lee Harris (Michael) dynamically embodying his younger selves. Through it all, his famously overbearing, occasionally abusive father Joseph (Devin Bowles, also brilliant as MJ’s tour manager) lurks as the primary villain.

Josiah Benson as ‘Little Michael’ and Anastasia
Talley as ‘Katherine Jackson’ in the MJ First National
Tour. (Matthew Murphy)

The program lists more than three dozen musical numbers from the Jackson catalog. Some (“Human Nature,” “Stranger in Moscow”) are woven in nicely as inner monologues that advance the story; a couple are only briefly detectable in the underscoring; and a few of the biggest hits (“Billie Jean,” “Smooth Criminal”) are staged almost step for moonwalking step as you might remember them from MTV, down to the faultlessly recreated costumes (by Paul Tazewell).

And therein lies the show’s obvious power—the song list is also the soundtrack of my childhood, as it is for millions of fans, including my enthusiastic opening-night companion: my 10-year-old son—who discovered Jackson’s music at the same young age as I did, just 30-some years later. While I settled into a comfortable cushion of nostalgia, he leaned into a brand-new thrill, watching his Spotify playlist come to life. (At one point, I had my own out-of-body experience, remembering my fourth-grade self at another opening night—the first concert of the lackluster Victory Tour, at Arrowhead Stadium in 1984.)

The dramatic tension, such as it is, derives from MJ channeling his ghosts into an unrelenting pursuit of perfection, obsessively revising the set list and dance numbers, further bloating the tour’s record-setting budget. Warnings from his business manager—”you could lose Neverland!”—and a “shocking” hot-mic revelation that “the pills are becoming a problem” hint at a potential unraveling that never comes (at least, not before the show ends, still in 1992).

The electric, final scene captures Jackson’s central contradiction—legendary but lonely—and in that moment, it’s possible to reflect on all that this show, and Jackson’s too-short life, have left unsaid, unsung, and unanswered. But only for a moment—before the familiar music rises again.

“MJ” runs through May 12 at the Music Hall, 301 W. 13th Street. For more information, visit www.americantheatreguild.com.

Victor Wishna

Victor Wishna is a Kansas City-based playwright, writer, author, editor, and commentator, among other things.

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