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Review Round-up: Thrills or Spills for Thriller Live?

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Michael Jackson tribute show Thriller Live opened at the Lyric theatre last week (See 1st Night Photos, 22 Jan 2009) with no shortage of critical presence, despite reports from Lyn Gardner of the Guardian that producers had actively discouraged her and some of her colleagues from going.

Billed as a concert show as opposed to a musical, Thriller Live includes Michael Jackson and Jackson 5 chart-toppers such as “I Want You Back”, “I’ll Be There”, “Earth Song”, “Blame It on the Boogie”, “Billie Jean”, “Beat It” and, of course, the title song, “Thriller” from best-selling albums including Off The Wall, Thriller, Bad, Dangerous and HIStory.

Thriller Live is directed by Gary Lloyd and written by Adrian Grant, with design by Jonathan Park. The cast is led by three 13-year olds who rotate in the role of Young Michael - with newcomer Kieran Alleyne, who was cast through open auditions, enjoying the limelight on press night.

Despite the apparent nervousness of producers regarding the critical reaction, most reviews were in fact quite favourable. Words such as “slick” “glitzy” and “eye-watering” adorned the papers as critics confounded expectations by praising Thriller Live's technical proficiency, if not its plot (the script could be written on “two pages of A4” according to one critic). And young debutant Kieran Alleyne moonwalked his way into the critics' affections – the “star of the show” according to Whatsonstage.com's Michael Coveney.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “Thriller Live comes with an almost repulsive set of recommendations in the programme from its own producers … and of course there is no mention of Jackson’s facelifts, weird obsession with Elizabeth Taylor, nor his strange home-based kindergarten that led to a series of court cases. But the man’s talent is the point, and there’s not a song that you don’t want to bask in as they roll off the stage in this wonderful show, covering all the great Jackson albums and ending with 'Thriller' … There is a narrative thread to the first half, in the emergence of the Jackson 5, hot-gospelling and hand-jiving their way to prominence, and the second half sags into some awful soft-centred political knee-jerk stuff about the legacy of JFK, Nelson Mandela and now Barack Obama. But the staging of the musical numbers, vivid light show and constant brilliance of the musical playing in John Maher’s band keep us riveted.”
  • Charles Spencer in the Telegraph - “What executive director Adrian Grant and his team have gone for is a glitzy concert of song and dance … within its narrow limits, the show works well. What most people like most about back-catalogue musicals is the medley of big hits at the end, and in this show the hits just keep on coming, largely glossing over the fact that in recent years Jackson has become ever less impressive as a pop star as he grows more bonkers and messianic … In his prime … Jackson really was the king of pop, astonishingly versatile and inventive, and blessed in Quincy Jones with a producer of genius. And by reminding us of Jackson's glory days, rather than the fiasco his private life has become, Thriller Live offers a great night out, though the excessive running time means that it doesn't stop until you've had more than enough.”
  • Sanjoy Roy in the Guardian (three stars) – “Thriller Live is … a 'jukebox show': a line of greatest hits from the Jackson 5 , through the golden days of Off The Wall and Thriller, to the rocky 90s solos. It starts in Jackson 5 mode, with 13-year old Kieran Alleyne as young Michael … It's cute, kicking and retro, but also highlights a danger that looms large in this show: that even as a tot, Jackson was supremely gifted performer - both as a singer and a dancer - and this tribute, however well intended, inevitably pales by comparison … But things look up in the second half. Denise Pearson … delivers a sassy rendition of 'The Way You Make Me Feel' and makes it her own ... Ricko Baird makes a very slick lead dancer, but you can't help but miss the syncopated, fast-and-loose popshots of the Gloved One.”
  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (two stars) - “ Fans of We Will Rock You and Mamma Mia! might be forgiven for thinking that Thriller Live is the latest in a long line of West End jukebox musicals. In fact, there's no fictional conceit stitching the songs together in Adrian Grant's 'celebration' of Michael Jackson's music. Instead, a barrage of awards and sales statistics (flashed up in graphics on a screen) punctuate set pieces featuring a revolving cast of six singers … By moving almost entirely chronologically through the career of an artist who peaked 25 years ago, however, the show goes into freefall in the years beyond 1983. The absence of production values does little to paper over the deficit. And yet, Jackson's real story - part fable, part tragedy - is fascinating. Sadly, it isn't even hinted at.”
  • Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard (three stars) - “There is, without doubt, a musical to be written about Michael Jackson. For starters, he has produced some of the most indestructible pop songs of recent decades and, with Thriller, made the best-selling album of all time. Then, of course, there’s the always fascinating personal life: the odd family, the bizarre pets and the ever-morphing skin colour. Unfortunately, Thriller Live is not that musical. It is instead a concert performance by a number of 'lead vocalists' and astoundingly agile dancers of an eye‑watering 32 numbers…It’s a slick package all right, with costume changes galore, strobe lighting and video projections on a weirdly pointillist screen. For many, however, the fact that a show whose script amounts, at most, to two pages of A4 has made it to the heights of Shaftesbury Avenue is a further sign of the hell and handcart dumbing-down of the West End … Thrilling, certainly, but empty, too.”

    - by Theo Bosanquet & Katie Blemler

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