MJ the Musical West End review – an exhilarating and dazzling show that swerves the controversies

The hit jukebox musical is now officially open at London’s Prince Edward Theatre

Myles Frost and the company of MJ the Musical
Myles Frost and the company of MJ the Musical, © Johan Persson

MJ is a sensational show that consistently manages to have its cake and eat it too. Yet in celebrating the artistry and ambition that made Michael Jackson “The King of Pop”, beloved by multitudinous fans around the world, it not only swerves the controversies surrounding him, but also never begins to reach the mystery that made his music so magical and yet the man so opaque.

It’s set in a rehearsal room in New York, conjured with floor-to-ceiling steel framed windows and grimy light by the set design of Derek McLane. Casually dressed dancers wander on, a band warms up. “Three minutes to Michael,” is the call. Then suddenly, the man is in the room, in a white shirt and black soft trousers, legs slipping and sliding, feet sharp, shoulders flexing as he sings “Beat It!”.

It’s thrilling, propulsive, the audience is already gripped. But then the song stops and Jackson, in the uncanny form of Myles Frost, is calling a halt in that gentle whisper of a voice. He wants things to get better; he is aiming for perfection on the four-continent, 15-month Dangerous tour of 1992.

It’s a clever decision by the book writer, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, and the director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, to set this story of Jackson at precisely this moment. When the MTV crew who are in the room mention that “there are a lot of strange stories making the rounds”, they are talking about rumours of hyperbaric oxygen tents, plastic surgery, Bubbles the chimp, and addiction to pain killers.

The first allegations of paedophilia against the star emerged a year later – and have been devastatingly documented ever since, although always denied by Jackson, who was also acquitted in court in 2005, and by his family (the show has been made by “special arrangement” with the estate).

Instead, the focus is fixed firmly backwards, through Jackson’s troubled and violent childhood, through early success with the Jackson Five and his fights to control his own career and take on the white musical establishment. Embodied with verve and conviction not only by Frost (as MJ), but by Mitchell Zhanagazha (as Michael) and Dylan Trigger (as Little Michael at the performance I attended), this journey through his backstory is elegantly shaped by the questions asked by the documentary crew. The music comes mainly from Jackson’s own back catalogue, encompassing 43 songs, some of them in fragments.

Myles Frost and the company of MJ the Musical
Myles Frost and the company of MJ the Musical, © Johan Persson

It’s a sophisticated take on a jukebox musical, staged by Wheeldon with such energy and panache that the trajectory is breathtaking, scenes folding in and out of each other seamlessly. One particularly vivid sequence, for example, sweeps us from a disco party of celebration into the shapes and atmosphere of “Thriller”, complete with the press corps as the zombies and Jackson’s father Joseph as chief villain, into Jackson’s triumphant night at the 1984 Grammys, when he swept the board.

The confidence of these transitions, achieved with a stagecraft that seems to magic movement out of constantly shifting shapes, that plays tribute to Jackson’s own dancing style while creating its own equally fluent vocabulary, is dazzling. It is enhanced by lighting from Natasha Katz that also glistens from the brightest neon to the quiet purple of a New York sunset.

At the centre of it all is Frost, reprising his Tony Award-winning performance. His impersonation of Jackson’s choreography is razor sharp – the gliding moonwalk, those little wiggles of the hips and thrusts of the pelvis – but even more impressively he does manage to conjure something of the tortured soul behind the image. He is both fierce in his demands, and yet disconcertingly gentle in delivery. Some of the most effective moments of the entire show are when he sings with his younger selves, underlining their vocals with little whoops and breaths, watching an entire life unfold.

He’s supported by an ensemble who really can sing and dance with the very best, particularly Ashley Zhangazha who doubles as his harassed tour manager and his demanding father, and by Mitchell Zhangazha (they are real-life brothers), who beautifully captures Michael’s troubled teens, trying to assert his identity against Joseph claiming his nose is too big, his skin too dark, and that “my hand ain’t nearly as heavy as the world’s gonna to be on your Black ass if you step out of line.”

All their efforts and the exceptional music supervision of David Holcenberg create an authorised biography that is exhilarating but has an enigma at its heart. Its own restraint means it doesn’t explore the man in the mirror as much as present us with an image of what he once meant.

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