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MJ At Neil Simon Theatre, Saturday, March 12th At 2pm, Reviewed

Jukebox Musicals come in two forms, the stories that aren’t about the popstar, say “Mamma Mia” or “Jagged Little Pill”, god knows “Girl From The North Country”, and the heliographic biographies, right now on Broadway there is “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” and “Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of The Temptations”. That’s five musicals and all five work well, and The Temptations is even better than simply works. All of them have great scores and The Temptations have a very dramatic, and warts and all, book as well as bringing Tammi Terrell to life.

Now, we have “MJ” -the Michael Jackson story in précis brought to you by The Michael Jackson Estate and Columbia Live Stage – in other words, it stays away from pederasty with a vengeance. Directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon and with a book by Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage, it is incapable of revealing anything about Michael Jackson. Nobody expected, or given the genre particularly wanted, a tell all about the accusations but there are other stories within the story. First and foremost, it is the story of black excellence. When Michael died of an overdose at the age of 50 in 2009, the outpouring of grief in the black community was overwhelming, after years of ignoring him as a race traitor, they embraced him hard. At the home of one of his greatest successes, the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, black New York cried its heart out. In THAT MJ story, he came out of the poverty stricken Gary, Indiana, to change pop music and to change the way the world viewed blackness. In this one…

This one opens at a studio in L.A. where Jackson is rehearsing for his “Dangerous” world tour and putting his finances in jeopardy with an exacting professionalism and an overactive imagination. In the performance I saw the much lauded Myles Frost’s MJ was replaced by swing performer Aramie Payton who was superb and actually looked more like Michael than Myles does. He is surrounded by a wonderful ensemble of excellent dancers (Wheeldon has been know to choreograph ballet), superb music from the house band, and terrific takes on Jackson staples from “I Want You Back” (the first four J5 # ones all appear) to “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” to “Wanna Be Starting Something”, a “Thriller” live version of the epochal video, and a breathtaking “Smooth Criminal”.

So consider it two musicals in one, the one with the dancing and songs is better than the standard bearer “Ain’t Too Proud” but the one ABOUT Michael isn’t so hot. Perhaps MJ’s estate tied Lynn’s hands, that is the only possible reason for not crucifying his repulsive, wife beating, child beating father Joe Jackson. With the father in her sites, she lets him off the hook. Quentin Earl Darrington’s Joe isn’t nearly harsh enough, the real Joe Jackson has so much coiled up tension he takes up all the oxygen in the room as he joins a plethora of father’s who hurt their children, from Murry Wilson (the closest we have to another MJ is Brian Wilson), to Serena and Venus’s father (which begs an answer to the question, what about all the children whose fathers beat em and yet they failed to succeed in entertainment?). What Quentin doesn’t have is the brutality you can see in every single picture of Joe.

As MJ works his dancers beyond exhaustion for what would be a year plus tour, all profits going to charity, a director Rachel (Whitney Bashor) and cinematographer from MTV show up for two days of filming for a special (in fact, MTV joined MJ on tour for a series called “The Dangerous Diaries”), a set up for flashbacks that act out seamlessly on stage. You can’t say enough about Derek McLane’s stage design, from the barebones rehearsal studio, he uses the entire area to metamorphize in an instant to a television studio, a neon lit live show segment and, most memorably, the Hollywood sign where MJ and Rachel sing “Human Nature”. Now, don’t get me wrong here -there isn’t the slightest suggestion of a romantic arrangement between MJ and Rachel, or MJ and anyone else whatsoever. MJ dismisses the question with an “I’m not seeing anyone right now” but for a teenage heartthrob and sex symbol, Michael is completely asexual… maybe I mean presexual. I mean, absolute the kid is not his son.

MJ, just like Elvis Presley before him, is a cipher, he is so quiet and weird we can project what we will upon him and this leads to confusion, for Lynn as well. It seems as though MJ was an abused child who rose to superstardom and went back to reclaim his childhood thereby laying the groundwork for a horrendous third act. I met one of his friends, Howard Bloom, last year he swore up and down that MJ was not a child molester: his love of children was so guileless it opened an opportunity for him to be blackmailed. Maybe, but this isn’t that.

We begin where we started, looking at the man in the mirror with no idea what he is doing there. It ends with the tour (and the lamest moment, where MJ is failed to be blasted out of the stage (an effect that on the tour caused him to sign a mortgage on Neverland in order to finance, but at the Neil Simon was a huge anticlimax). I spent last week watching video of all of MJ’s tours from 1977 with the Jacksons to 2001 (a show I went to) at MSG to “This Is It” (2009), and musically they stand up but except for the latter, they don’t stand up visually. MJ looks better than the old videos. That’s worth keeping in mind as an additional selling point for MJ -the story of a man who was a child who wasn’t there. So three important aspects of the MJ story, poverty, blackness, and sexuality, are not dealt with. One day, when we have even more distance, we can get to the heart of one of the 20th century’s greatest song and dance men, a man who lifted not just the black community but the entire world and then fell apart spectacularly. But this isn’t it.

Grade: B

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