MJ The Musical

Lynn Nottage & Christopher Wheeldon
Delfont Mackintosh Theatres
Prince Edward Theatre

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Myles Frost and the cast of MJ Credit: Johan Persson
Myles Frost and the cast of MJ Credit: Johan Persson
Myles Frost and the cast of MJ Credit: Johan Persson

There’s always a huge amount of excitement ahead of a Broadway transfer to the dazzling West End. Ahead of MJ the Musical, the anticipation was no different, particularly after its huge success in New York where it picked up 10 Tony awards in 2022. Among them was a gong for Best Leading Actor, which went to the wonder kid Myles Frost who played Michael Jackson. He became the youngest individual actor in history to win this category, and so his West End debut is somewhat of an exciting moment. More about him later.

This jukebox bio-show takes up Jacko's story in 1992 and centres around the backstage preparations for his world tour. Needless to say, it's stuffed full of the big bangers from "Thriller" and "Billie Jean" that got the crowds swaying and cheering to some super emotionally charged, spine-tingling numbers like "She's out of my Mind".

But it's not a happy ship in the days leading up to the biggest show on earth opening, and the tension, stress and backstage bickering between Jackson and his team is laid uncomfortably bare. His drive and obsession for perfection transfers onto others, and all this is being captured by an MTV crew who have been given permission to follow Michael during this busy time.

This subplot and the character of Rachel, a thirsty young journalist in pursuit of a scoop played by Phillipa Stefani, is weak and pointless. It brings with it no drama, tension or conclusion of any substance or merit. But luckily, neither does it interrupt or ruin any of the other fascinating layers of gold written by the sensational powerhouse Lynn Nottage.

Nottage seems to have had free(ish) rein to delve into whatever aspects of Jackson's past she wanted—warts and all! There are lots of intentionally awkward scenes that show his damaged and vulnerable character as well as many hilarious interactions with others that give a nod to his childlike personality. From donning a red nose to pulling a kid's plastic water gun on his accountant, these tender moments remind us how weird and sweet Jacko could be.

Nottage didn't shy away from some of the controversary and speculation that followed him, including the bleaching of his skin stories and of course Bubbles, his pet monkey. But—and it's a massive but—there remains a massive elephant in the room. Conveniently, the show is set in 1992, just a year before the serious criminal allegations about Jackson's secret and sordid double life were exposed. It doesn't tackle these paedophilia accusations or the sexual abuse lawsuits against the singer.

This may be a huge problem for some, and it may even raise questions around whether this show should even be in the West End at all. But to Nottage's credit, there is no attempt to dress Jacko up as the squeaky-clean King of Pop he portrayed whilst entertaining us all with his catalogue of some of the greatest tunes of all time.

Frost was discovered on YouTube and plucked from obscurity to take on this role in New York, and what a sensational find it was for the producers. This boy is a triple threat. He can move like Jackson, sing like Jackson and has the utterly convincing demeanour of Jackson. He could be the closest thing to the real McCoy we might ever have.

Frost commands the stage, even if I did have to strain to hear his timid, whispery delivery as he strolled around making unrealistic demands of his colleagues and senior team. His vulnerability, stubbornness and shyness were all evident and rolled into this tiny little figure that had the ability to then turn into the global showman that he was with one simple spin of his loafers. At time, you would have thought Frost was made from elastic as he moonwalked across the stage performing those iconic Jackson moves with ease and confidence. His showmanship is faultless. This is a talent to watch and adore.

Unlike other jukebox-style biographical shows, Jackson's life and struggles aren't told in chronological order, but instead it jumps back and forth between 1992 and periods from his childhood when he was simply Michael, the youngest of seven kids in a family dominated by an abusive and at times evil father, Joseph. This switching can sometimes be off-putting and confusing, but on this occasion it worked seamlessly—but few expected anything less with director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon OBE at the helm clutching his two Tonys and experience from the Royal Ballet.

The Nottage-Wheeldon combo makes for a formidable pairing, and the show's attempt to unpack and reveal why Michael Jackson was so uniquely flawed, damaged and vulnerable is enlightening. There's nothing new revealed in the story, but it reminds us why he turned out as he did. I'd forgotten about the horrible time when Michael had his scalp burnt whilst filming a Pepsi advert, and how his dad stuffed him full of painkillers so he could finish the Jacksons' reunion tour and how this ultimately led to his addiction. The show does not offer this incident as any sort of excuse for his behaviour, just merely a nod to why he may have took the decisions he did as an adult.

We know the Jackson family is a tight-knit, impenetrable team lead by Joseph, who is played by Ashley Zhangazha. Uncomfortable as it may have been to watch the Jackson family in the early days as they are dominated and bullied by Joseph, credit goes to Zhangazha for bringing the hard times to life alongside his long-suffering wife, played by Phebe Edwards. Both play other roles and have the voice to match Frost when needed.

It's been a few years since we had a Michael Jackson show on in the West End following the closure of Thriller: Live, a poor cousin to this vastly superior production. Some might feel uncomfortable with a celebration of such a flawed and divisive figure whose true nature or personality we may never know. For that reason some may also feel that a light-hearted boogie through his greatest hits as part of a shallow jukebox bio-show to be completely inappropriate.

Whatever your view, there's no doubt that yet again his songs, moves and rocky journey to the undisputed King of Pop still makes for a damn good night out!

Reviewer: Thomas Magill

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