Cirque show captures Michael Jackson's magic

Dancers perform "Billie Jean" during Cirque Du Soleil's "Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour."
Dancers perform "Billie Jean" during Cirque Du Soleil's "Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour."
Posted: April 06, 2012

CLEARLY, CIRQUE du Soleil's "Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour" is a major undertaking - a loud and lavish, multimedia celebration of the "King of Pop" boasting a budget in excess of $50 million, a cast and crew numbering 220.

As an arena rock concert spectacle - how creators view it - the production dwarfs Madonna and Lady Gaga's wildest touring fantasies. Planned to circle the globe for more than three years, the thing's loaded to the gills with lavishly costumed dancers and daredevil acrobatic acts, a 12-piece band, high-tech video screens, fanciful props and in-your-face pyrotechnic explosions.

Along with a huge and highly animated main stage, there's a motorized conveyor belt ramp feeding performers to and from a midcourt second stage. So much floor space is consumed that there's room for only 10,000 to 12,000 spectators, even in a building like the Wells Fargo Center, where the show plays Tuesday and Wednesday and which normally accommodates as many as 21,000 patrons for concerts.

There's only one element missing: the top-billed star.

Where's Michael?

Of course Michael Jackson's singing and spoken voice is ever present, mixed (and sometimes mashed up) with that live band and singers led by Jackson's longtime keyboardist Greg Phillinganes.

Jackson's visage is often flashing on the video screens, too, with a number of clips borrowed from the "This Is It" stage show (and posthumous documentary film) he was working on for a London debut before his death at age 50 on June 25, 2009.

"Michael's spirit is reflected in every aspect of the show," noted choreographer Travis Payne, another of the true believers and keepers of the flame connected to this project. Payne cut his teeth - as did "Immortal World Tour" writer/director Jamie King - in the dance ensemble of Jackson's 1992-93 "Dangerous" concert show.

Yet for some spectators, including the trio of tweens plopped behind me at a recent Prudential Center performance in Newark, N.J., the message that "Michael has left the building" still hasn't sunk in, even 34 months after his sad demise.

Before the show, the little girls were warming up for the night's festivities with piercing screams and snippets of their favorite Jackson ditties. When the show kicked into gear, though, they grew hushed and pretty much stayed that way. At intermission, I overheard one ask her mom, "Why is the mime the star?"

The juggling act

Devotees of the French-Canadian performance art-circus troupe have to be chuckling over that line. Virtually every Cirque show features a clownish mime - this one's dressed in a silvery, sequined, M.J.-ish jumpsuit - who gleefully leads us into the grand and mysterious adventure.

But unlike the fairly linear, Cirque-created Beatles "Love" celebration (still pulling crowds after five years to the Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas), this show ebbs and flows in dream time, juggling material more for artistic pacing than for a HIStory lesson.

The Jackson tribute does much of its mourning at the outset, setting the tone with the singer/composer's poignant ballad reflection on the "Childhood" he missed the first time around and would later make up for as best and as oddly as he could. (FYI: Back in the day, when this then- novice journalist had the chance to chat with a 12-year-old Michael Jackson, I asked what he did "for fun" in his "spare time." The silence from the other end of the phone line was deafening. "When we're not performing, we're rehearsing," he finally said. Oh.)

Keeping a respectful distance

Overall, the tone of this Cirque tribute is more impressionistic than copycat. No one dares to lip-synch to Jackson's vocal tracks, except in a scene before the gates of Neverland, where a mixed lot of "Fanatics" move to the sounds of the Jackson 5 (and the gates eventually part, allowing the elephants and Jackson's pet chimp Bubbles out to play).

There isn't one Michael moonwalking onstage in "Beat It" or grabbing his crotch (a classic Travis Payne invention) in Cirque's restaging of "Thriller." Maybe a half-dozen of the undead dancers do the crotch-grabbing.

A whimsical giant dancing glove and matched pair of penny loafers also speak with his iconic, larger-than-life persona.

And given this is a Cirque show, several songs become fodder for gravity-defying acrobatics, from the jittery, jazzed-up "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' " that sends hip-hopping spiders scampering up and spray-painting on an animated video wall, to the scantily clad female pole dancer (Felix Cane) who personifies "Dangerous." Yeah, she's "Bad," too, but proved to be one of the best-received acts, along with an inspiring, one-legged dancer (Jean Sok) and the dazzlingly lit, high-flying sprites floating magically through the Neverland night in "Human Nature."

What would Michael do?

"Michael was always trying to top himself," said Phillinganes, who first worked with the guy on his breakout 1979 "Off the Wall" solo album. "And I fundamentally believe he would have liked this show - even though I added horns to the band, which he never used in concert and thought were 'archaic,' " Phillinganes shared with a laugh.

"The guy was a huge fan of Cirque du Soleil, ever since he caught one of their tented shows in Santa Monica in 1987," Phillinganes also said. "He visited their headquarters in Montreal more than once. The last time, in 2004, Michael found the costume wing and lost his mind. He didn't want to leave. He really respected the creativity of the Cirque shows and how they obsessed on everything, down to the last little detail."

Jackson would surely be happy that Phillinganes has summoned up four other Jackson regulars - drummer John "Sugarfoot" Moffett, bassist Don Boyette, guitarist Jon Myron Clark and backing singer Fred White - to laser-lock the Cirque ensemble onto the isolated Jackson vocals (and computer-synchronized "click tracks") playing in their headphones. "Michael was not a self-contained artist like the Beatles; he relied a lot on the contributions of his musicians," said the keyboardist who laid down those memorable vamps on "Thriller" and shares composing credits with Jackson on the "Ultimate Collection" track "Cheater."

A rush to judgment

What do showgoers think of "Michael Jackson Immortal"? Web-posted comments are all over the map, from "loved every minute" to "what a disappointment." (Me, I'd award a not-perfect, mostly positive B+.)

Being a Jackson fan definitely helps in the attitude-adjustment department.

But where you're sitting in the arena also seems a factor, with the most expensive floor seats right in front of that thrust extension ironically proving the least desirable for taking in the whole multistage, multitasking spectacle. (My carefully picked press seats at the new North Jersey arena were on the side, 12 rows off the floor, about halfway back. Even there I missed a couple of things.)

Some Cirque fanatics have wished for more circus thrills and intimacy. The company's smaller-scaled, in-the-round tent shows and custom- theater Vegas creations play for 2,000 to 3,000 patrons.

From their perspective, some Jackson fans were expecting more storytelling, less of his earnest, save-the-world ballads (which Cirque treats to weighty tableaux) and for complete performances of up-tempo blockbusters such as "Billie Jean" and "Black or White" crammed here into a "Mega Mix."

Yeah, everybody's a critic.

Please note, though, that the most withering of showgoer comments - suggesting dancers were sloppy and cues were being missed - were posted during the extravaganza's early-on, end-of-2011 stint in Las Vegas and have since been corrected, said Payne. While a part of Jackson's Neverland Ranch lore, a malfunctioning, animated prop likewise dubbed "The Giving Tree" has largely been eliminated. Only the trunk remains.

"Normally, three to four years are devoted to developing a Cirque show," Payne explained. "This one was up and running in less than a year and a half. Truth is, it's still being fine-tuned."

Rush to judgment

That accelerated schedule was surely prompted by the immense ($252 million-grossing) worldwide popularity of "This Is It," the documentary released in late 2009, and the desire to bring a comparably grand stage tribute to fruition while the legend still had maximum luster.

"Other people were trying to get me involved in their Jackson tribute shows. This was the only one that seemed right and that had the complete support of the Jackson family," said Phillinganes. "They literally opened the music vaults for us, for Kevin Antunes and me to explore."

To expedite the creation, Payne was handed several "signature" Jackson songs to stage, while nine other choreographers also worked on numbers. Maybe there's a connection there to criticisms that the end results are "uneven."

The powers that be in Montreal have evidentially taken these observations to heart. While the subject matter will remain the same, and some of the same creative team is on board, a "totally different" Cirque du Soleil-Michael Jackson show is being plotted for permanent installation at the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas, with a targeted opening of "mid-2013," said show representative Maxime (Max) Charbonneau. n

Cirque Du Soleil's "Michael Jackson Immortal The World Tour," 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, Wells Fargo Center, 3601 S. Broad St., $50-$250, 215-298-4200, www.comcasttix.com and www.cirquedusoleil.com/MichaelJackson.

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