Review: 'MJ' Takes the Jukebox Musical to New Heights
Written by Marin Heinritz. Photo: "MJ" on Broadway, courtesy of Matthew Murphy.


"It felt like catching the Holy Spirit in church,” Michael Jackson, the character created in “MJ” the musical, says describing the moment he felt he arrived, making music with his brothers and performing to huge applause at the Apollo Theatre. “It felt like love.”

Both the light and the dark that motivate The King of Pop as an artist are the throughline for this spectacular musical on tour, currently in production at DeVos Performance Hall presented by Broadway Grand Rapids.       

“MJ” is very much a jukebox musical, capitalizing on much of the tremendous discography of The King of Pop, connected by a story that amounts to an authorized biography “in special arrangement with the estate of Michael Jackson”. But it’s so much more than the sum of those parts and elevates the popular form that brings the music and story of a band or musician to audiences that clamor for more, such as in “Beautiful”, “Jersey Boys”, and “Million Dollar Quartet”. 

Though the conceit of “MJ” is quite simple, the elevation comes from brilliant execution from start to finish. From Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage’s clever book to Tony Award-winning choreographer and director Christopher Wheeldon’s brilliant vision, and all the world-class performers who bring this tale to light—part live music video, part concert, part biopic woven together like a brilliant musical memoir driven as much by innovative dance as anything else, “MJ” is wonderfully entertaining, hugely moving, and raises the bar for what jukebox musicals can do.

The show opens in the rehearsal room, dancers stretching and preparing to tour following the hugely successful “Dangerous” album. MJ walks in to observe, almost surreptitiously, except his star power is undeniable. When he joins the dancers for “Beat It” Roman Banks channels Michael Jackson in voice and body, his sideways moon walk, slouching white socks and loafers a dead giveaway, the passion in his voice astounding. A reporter (Mary Kate Moore) and cameraman (Da’Von T. Moody) from MTV are there to do a documentary and anxieties are already high for MJ since he hasn’t given an interview in 14 years and a big press conference is looming. 

But the reporter’s questions instigate memories for MJ that emerge as flashbacks, from his origins in Gary, Indiana being the seventh of nine children who avoid killing each other in a house built for four by making music together to the rise of The Jackson 5 through Motown. His abusive father’s need for perfection is always in the background for MJ. “It was the first time I felt my power,” he said about singing to an audience. “My father’s eyes on me.” 

The flashbacks materialize as powerful musical numbers, mostly set to the hit songs (nearly 40 are at least sampled) that were his, and show his evolution through time professionally, artistically, personally. MJ the child and teenager are performed incredibly well by Brandon Lee Harris and Bane Griffith. From the Apollo to Soul Train, turning solo, breaking racial barriers on MTV and the Grammys, working with Quincy Jones and transforming from a “soulful singer to a musician”, reuniting with the Jackson 5 for the Victory Tour in 1984, and becoming so driven to outdo himself again and again through it all that he very much resembles his demonic father, though without the cruelty. The tension between the present and the past, much like in memoir, provides the multilayered central conflict of the story.

This story paints a sympathetic portrait of MJ and it presents his path as one that is dangerous on many levels—his father’s wrath that haunts him, being Black in a white world, the costs of fame, as well as the fans and press that hound him, and the looming threat of his pain pill addiction, a secret no one is willing to address.

All of it suggests the very real underpinnings for how he himself morphed into a freak if not a monster in fighting these demons, which comes to a fantastic apex in the second act with a powerfully reimagined “Thriller” set amid a circus (incredible set by Derek McLane and projections by Peter Nigrini based on the album cover for “Dangerous” with layers and layers of marquee lighting and lights designed by Natasha Katz) and danced by zombies as MJ joins to fight a demon represented by his father. Another truly wonderful reimagining of “Human Nature” offers a thoughtful look inside MJ’s imagination of how life could look without having every second of his life on display. Beautiful port de bras and arabesques en attitude show Wheeldon’s balletic choreographic roots as well as the extraordinary range of the corps. 

MJ the dancer comes to life visually and in a nuanced way through Wheeldon’s choreography as well as “Michael Jackson movement” by Rich + Tone Talauega who worked with MJ himself. In the second act, there’s a terrific nod to MJ’s influences as Banks dances with his inspirations Bob Fosse, Fred Astaire, and the Nicholas Brothers. It’s a delight to see how his movement is a response to the music as well as his emotional states, again through memories and time that are also shown through fabulous costumes, from fuchsia and gold suits to afros and fringe to MJ’s iconic rhinestone glove and jackets that range from red leather to black and gold sequined, designed by Paul Tazewell.    

“Listen to the music. It answers any questions you might have,” MJ says to the reporter to deflect further questions, suggesting that the literal answers to people’s lurid curiosity pale in comparison to the inner world of the artist. The show, set in 1992, never broaches the child abuse allegations that began the following year. Yet he does admit to plastic surgery, suggesting in L.A. everyone gets nose jobs, and expresses hurt and Black pride at the suggestion he deliberately bleached his skin.

Does MJ tell all behind “The Man in the Mirror”? No, but that’s not what it’s for. This show is ultimately about glorifying MJ the artist, and in so doing reveals beautifully what lay beneath the surface that inspired his genius, all with tremendous imagination, particularly in the innovative choreography and stagecraft, both of which offer the very best of what’s possible in live theatre. It makes real and relevant how very grand and inventive MJ and his artistry were and continue to be, morphed into this collaborative art form presented by artists clearly driven and inspired at the same level as The King of Pop himself.

Broadway Grand Rapids
July 9-14