Michael Jackson was an iconic singer, dancer, songwriter, producer, philanthropist and intensely complex (and controversial) figure who transformed pop culture in the second half of the 20th century. He began his career at the age of 6, died at the age of 50 and left behind an enduring legacy of immense innovation.
No single musical biography can possibly capture the enduring allure of his work and the tragic complexity of his life. But “MJ: The Musical,” the Tony Award-winning show that opened on Broadway in February 2022 (where it is still running) and made its first stop on a national tour Wednesday evening at Chicago’s beautiful Nederlander Theatre, does an exceptional job of capturing both aspects. And a superb cast — led by Roman Banks, whose uncannily brilliant portrayal of every aspect of MJ might best be described as a remarkable reincarnation rather than a simple portrayal of Jackson — is key to its impact. So is the remarkable performance of the young “Little Michael” as played by the clarion-voiced 12-year-old Josiah Benson.
Of course there also is the remarkable direction and choreography of Christopher Wheeldon (the ballet-bred Brit whose work is familiar to Chicago audiences by way of the Joffrey Ballet’s innovative “Nutcracker,” and whose Broadway production of “An American in Paris” garnered several Tony Awards). The show is driven by a multifaceted book by the outstanding Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, who focuses largely on the development of MJ’s creative life and those who influenced him (from Quincy Jones to Bob Fosse, Fred Astaire and the Nicholas Brothers). It also captures his deeply troubled relationship with his abusive father, his original career as the youngest and most talented member of the Jackson Five and the serious accident to his head that occurred during the filming of a Pepsi commercial and that may well have been the trigger to his use of powerful drugs. In addition, periodically framing the story is the arrival of a journalist and her cameraman who struggle to interview MJ before he sets out on the Dangerous Tour. The troubling elements of his later years are not part of the story.
Adding to the show’s intensity — and its inclusion of the nearly two dozen classics that were part of MJ’s repertoire over the years — is the dynamic orchestration by David Holcenberg and the exceptional orchestra led by music director Victor Simonson. In addition, there is an elaborate set by Derek McLane, sophisticated projection design by Peter Nigrini, lighting by Natasha Katz and costumes by Paul Tazewell patterned on MJ’s decorative jackets, iconic hats and black-and-white rehearsal outfits. (If there is one flaw in this production it is the periodic loss of clear sound for both the dialogue and song lyrics.)
Framed by MJ’s preparation for his monumental Dangerous World Tour that played to 3.5 million people on four continents in 1992 and 1993, the show captures the crucial period beyond his moonwalk and robot innovations during which he dove far deeper into his search for a more profound key to his songwriting, and more. As he explains: “I’m starting with the man in the mirror.”
The large supporting cast in this show is first rate. But the man you will be watching for more than two hours in this immensely demanding production will be Banks. And you will have absolutely no doubt that this “man in the mirror” is the real Michael Jackson.
“MJ: The Musical” runs through Sept. 2 at the Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St. For tickets, visit broadwayinchicago.com.
Follow Hedy Weiss on Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic