Let’s face it, anything Michael Jackson-shaped that comes your way after the man’s death is likely to reek of opportunism. So let’s clear this up straight away: Thriller Live is not a quick-to-market cash-in on the cult of pop history’s most bankable figure. Having toured extensively and held its own in London’s West End, the show has a back story that begins in 1991 and a lifespan as fittingly rocky as that of the singer it pays unwavering homage to. It also – purists note – comes with the royal approval of the self-styled King of Pop himself.
Despite that, it had a shaky start. ‘When we launched the first tour, no one wanted to know about Michael Jackson,’ producer Paul Walden explained a few hours before curtain-up at London’s Lyric Theatre. ‘It was a very negative climate. We got a lot of knock-backs from the media. Radio stations had stopped playing his music and almost everyone said to us, “No way, we’re not interested”.’
Starting life as a birthday tribute organised by Jacko’s long-time pal Adrian Grant, the show only took off in 2005 – a time when Jackson’s reputation needed a fair amount of life support. ‘It was always to help him. I think it was a counterbalance to what was happening in the media,’ says Walden, with a very faint echo of that ultra-loyalist chagrin that seemed to always believe that Jackson was a saintly figure, eternally maligned by a gangly press. ‘It wasn’t capitalising on him or taking advantage.’
For that reason, he adds, despite Jackson’s fierce protection of his artistry, the show got the go-ahead, and the Jackson family support continued when it ‘took the plunge’ and hit the West End. ‘I think we had about 24 hours’ notice when [Tito and the Jackson family] announced they were coming,’ says the show’s director and choreographer, Gary Lloyd. ‘So obviously, it was all panic stations. But, the thing is, they said they could only stay for the first 10 minutes of the first act. So, I thought: Great, they’re going to come in, sit down, the whole audience is going to see them, then they’ll get up and leave. How’s that going to look? As it turned out, they stayed for the whole performance and made nice with the fans at the end.’
Lloyd’s show runs at a fairly breathless clip and starts ominously. As it rumbles into gear, large screens show pictures of Jackson in various poses, from the sensual to the heroic to Jackson the world healer, with various messages heralding his record-selling endowments. Oh dear – it’s that unsettling feeling we’re about to be dunked sideways into a sentimental, creepy, MJ-as-messiah mush-fest. Thankfully it’s a fleeting moment, and one we only return to towards the end, with some misfiring slogans about ‘racism’ and ‘hunger’ making all-too-earnest attempts to tug the heartstrings. Happily, though, the remaining two and a half hours reward us merrily with a tireless, giant-sized whizz-bang of a show that comfortably justifies the plaudits’ hype and transcends the so-so parade of lookalike karaoke tributes it could so easily have been.
From the off, we’re quickly into the falsetto-ed, razzle-dazzle territory of The Jackson 5, with go-go get-ups that bring a calming realisation that, in fact, here is a show that isn’t taking itself too seriously. And so the feelgood party begins with a standout performance from one of the young leads, Reece McConnell, who makes a way-more-than-worthy caretaker of ‘ABC’ and ‘I Want You Back’. From here it’s a non-stop, shoulder-twitching, crotch-grabbing charge through the Jackson glory days, ably channelling his detours into funk, soul, disco and even rock, with a member of the live band dropping to his knees to deliver the grimy guitar solo of ‘Dirty Diana’. Lloyd’s choreography is spectacular and inventive. He needn’t feel glum that the audience mostly saves its lungs for the few moments when the cast breaks into the original dance moves of ‘Smooth Criminal’, ‘Thriller’ and, of course, the Moonwalk.
Despite all its enabling authenticity, though, Grant’s friendship with Jackson looms large over the evening. If the man’s eccentricities at times eclipsed his music, there’s none of that here. This is a show without any narrative arc – what Grant called his ‘jukebox show’ – and it mines the back catalogue in roughly chronological order, with Jackson the man not so much as hinted at. That particular Wacko Jacko musical is, no doubt, on its way. His real-life story offers almost endless possibilities for theatre, and something in the outer reaches of good taste – in the order of Jerry Springer: The Opera – will inevitably surface sooner or later.
For now, though, Lloyd and the gang make a more reverent nod to the Jackson legacy, and any dramatic deficit is compensated for with the show’s breezy razzmatazz and energetic crackle. As lead vocalist John Moabi said after the show, with that glaze of quasi-religious candour that MJ super-fandom seems to give rise to: ‘He’s left us all this amazing gold dust. We just wanted to do justice to the material.’ For upbeat song-and-dance escapism, that’s mission accomplished, young man.
Thriller Live is at Flash Forum, Yas Island, Abu Dhabi on June 9-10 at 8pm. Tickets are Dhs100-195 at www.timeouttickets.com.
Two years on
We look back at the tributes, homages and questionable cash-ins since the King of Pop popped his shiny clogs.
July 6 2009
One of the more creative Jackson tributes, EternalMoonwalk.com was launched two weeks after Jackson’s death. The website invites users to upload footage of themselves pulling off Jacko’s signature move, then links the thousands of clips into one never-ending dance sequence.
July 7 2009
A public memorial is held at the Staples Centre in Los Angeles, where MJ had rehearsed just two days before his death. A billion people are believed to have tuned in to watch the service on TV.
October 28 2009
Filmmaker Kenny Ortega releases Michael Jackson’s This is It, a documentary chronicling rehearsals for Jackson’s run of 50 never-to-be-performed concerts at London’s O2 Arena. Reaction was mixed, some calling it an exploitative cash-in, others relishing the chance to witness their icon’s final moments on stage.
March 16 2010
Sony Music Entertainment signs a deal worth US$250 million (Dhs918 million) with Jackson’s estate to retain distribution rights over all of his music until 2017. The deal also includes rights to release seven posthumous albums by 2019.
November 2 2010
Jackson’s estate and Cirque du Soleil announce plans to produce a second MJ stage show (after Thriller Live), entitled Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour. Though it’s not scheduled to premiere until October 2 this year, reports suggest it’ll be a narrative-less tribute much like Thriller Live, with the signature acrobatics of Cirque du Soleil thrown in.
April 3 2011
Mohamed Al Fayed, the former owner of Harrods in London, unveils a crude Michael Jackson statue outside Fulham FC’s ground, which he also owns. Fans reacted negatively, while art critics labelled it ‘creepy and nasty’. Al Fayed told detractors they could ‘go to hell’.
April 15 2011
Jackson’s image goes digital as Michael Jackson: The Experience is released for Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. A music/rhythm game in the vein of SingStar and Guitar Hero, players are tasked with shimmying their way through Jackson’s dance moves while warbling along to everything from ‘Beat It’ to ‘Thriller’.