In case you’re watching the current season of Only Muders in the Building, you’ll know that its plot revolves around the murder mystery of a Broadway star. Spoiler alert! The very first episode sets the tone of Season 3 as it begins with a young Loretta Durkin (played by Meryl Streep) watching her first Broadway as a kid in awe and being enamoured by the experience–right from the setup to the actor on stage. That’s how I felt when I watched my first Broadway this summer in New York.
Going to NYC and not watching Broadway is like going to Agra and not seeing the Taj Mahal. The city is the birthplace of Broadway and as someone who only had two days to spend time in the city, I had to tick this off my bucket list. My family and I chose to watch the much-talked-about MJ the Musical.
You’d expect the Neil Simon Theatre on 52nd Street to be relatively less crowded for a matinee show on a Thursday. To our surprise, we had to wait in a long queue before the show commenced. There was excitement and cheer in the air. I could tell all in attendance were diehard Michael Jackson fans.
On entering the theatre, I was mesmerised by the interiors. I took a moment to absorb the elegant surroundings of the 18th-century Adameque-style theatre with plaster ornamentation and a mural of a pastoral scene over the proscenium.
As I took my seat on the 6th row from the stage (a good seat indeed!), I saw some members of the cast rehearsing on stage. And I was heady with anticipation. As the lights went out, the curtains rose and the musical began with one of Michael Jackson’s popular numbers, Beat It, starring the lead actor Elijah Rhea Johnson as MJ, laying the groundwork for what went down to be an unforgettable experience.
Set against the backdrop of the making of his 1992 Dangerous World Tour, MJ is created by Tony Award®-winning Director/Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage. Following the opening act, the show continues with MJ prepping for his tour, making changes on the spot in order to ensure everything goes perfectly for the tour. His road manager Rob (played by Apollo Levine) gives access to MTV reporter Rachel (played by Bailey McCall) and her cameraman on the tour rehearsals to make a documentary on the star. Although MJ wants the documentary to be based only on his music, Rachel keeps questioning his personal life which leads MJ to take us through various scenes from his early. And that’s how the musical comes to life with the remaining cast, backup singers and dancers alternating roles to perform 37 of the artist’s numbers to narrate his story. The musical goes beyond the signature moves and songs of the star, offering flashbacks with his family, the formation of Jackson 5 and a rare look at the creative mind and collaborative spirit that catapulted Jackson to his legendary status.
Honouring the late star, Johnson proves to be the perfect pick as the leading man of the musical. While he looks similar to the King of Pop, he has aced MJ’s voice, singing technique and legendary dance moves including the Moonwalk. Had Michael been alive to see his performance, he’d be proud.
Some may think the show touched upon MJ’s life only surface level, but I personally think the two-hour musical did justice in terms of the storyline based on his life events before the 1992 tour. Johnson along with the rest of the cast delivered performances of MJ’s chart-topping hits. Right from the music to the choreography, the energy was wild, so much so that it transferred to everyone in the audience. Every single person was singing along and grooving in their seat. With performances on songs like Thriller, Black Or White, Bad, Earth Song and Smooth Criminal, among others, it felt like I was attending MJ’s concert.
While the entire cast did a stellar job, some noteworthy names who stood along with Johnson are Apollo Levine (who switches his role from MJ’s show manager Rob to his manipulative father Joseph), Tavon Olds-Sample (who played Michael from his young adulthood), both the young MJs (played by Bane Griffith and Max Chambers) and Ayana Jackson (who plays MJ’s mother Katherine).
It was interesting to see how each song was woven in a way that went along with the plot of every scene. For instance, his mother sings Keep The Faith to comfort Michael right after his father slaps him. Then there’s They Don’t Care About Us which depicts MJ’s suffocation from all the multiple rumours and news reports of him in the media.
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The seamless movement of the set design from scene to scene along with the attention to detail in costumes added to the authenticity of the musical. Michael Jackson was known for his flashy outfits on stage and the musical has done its best to recreate some of the looks, from his iconic red jacket in the Thriller video to the sequin jacket he donned at the 1984 Grammy Awards.
Ending with an equally impactful finale, the musical concluded with MJ wearing his iconic crystal-studded glove—which the team made by sticking around 1,200-1,400 crystals—depicting that he is ready to take on the stage of his 1992 tour, not without the closing song of course, which is Man in the Mirror.
The cast and crew came back on stage to bow down and as they left, the exit doors of the theatre opened towards the street for the audience to depart, but even as people left, there was so much vigour and liveliness. The show truly energises you. It certainly left an impact on me.
MJ the Musical is great for diehard Michael Jackson fans. But even if you are someone who went because your spouse dragged you for it, don’t be surprised if you come out turning into the artist’s fan. As for me, my playlist had MJ’s music on loop for a couple of days.
Heading to New York and want to watch a Broadway? Visit broadwaycollection.com to check out all the available shows and their respective schedules.