“MJ The Musical” has made it to Seattle, and audiences will be moonwalking their way over to the Paramount Theatre to experience the dance-in-your-seat production that won four Tony Awards in 2022.
It’s not just a soul train down memory lane for fans of the King of Pop. The costumes, the set design, and the compelling way in which the book by Lynn Nottage tells this true story will draw in viewers, even those who are too young to remember his rise to popularity. “MJ” will get even the most tepid Michael Jackson fans bopping to the beat.
An Early Introduction
The theater recommends attendees be at least eight years old. Luckily, it’s generally suitable for mature, late-elementary school kids and certainly for the teenage demographic. There is some mention of Michael’s well-known dependency on pills, and there is just a passing comment made about “rumors” and “the families brought on tour,” a reference to the later sexual abuse allegations made against him by men who worked with the singer when they were underage.
The production does feature some mild inappropriate language and one instance of violence in the form of a slap across the face. A necessity to telling his story, “MJ” depicts Michael’s troubled relationship with his father and the frequent verbal abuse and pressure to perform, shaping the artist into the icon he became.
But apart from some stern words, most of the conflict takes place within Michael, who converted his father’s expectations into his own sky-high standards. It is a moving story, and many mature adolescent viewers may be quickly turned on to Michael’s music with such a vibrant and kinetic introduction. For many, the enthralling recreation of the “Thriller” music video will be convincing enough.
In a nutshell
It’s 1992, and Michael Jackson is the biggest recording artist in the world. His “Bad” album and subsequent world tour were cultural phenomenons. “MJ” is set over two days as Michael rehearses for his follow-up tour in support of his eighth studio album “Dangerous.” A producer and cameraman from MTV are granted access to his rehearsal space to document Michael’s sometimes inspired, other times volatile preparation. The pressures on the pop star begin to take their toll as financial issues arise, and the search for perfection begins to chip away at his happy façade.
But the bigger issue is not the media. When forced to work through his old music, memories seep through, chronicling where he began and how many walls (and color barriers) he had to level to become the first black recording artist in heavy rotation on MTV and one of the first black global superstars ever. Jumping between past and present, the musical tracks his rise to the top, from his meager beginnings as a kid from Gary, Indiana, who learned to sing and dance from television shows like “Soul Train” to his immediate success as the youngest member of The Jackson 5, a pop group comprising of Michael and his four older brothers. His solo career was also an uphill battle as he fought to make a name for himself with his innovative music and dance moves while still appeasing family dependent on his stardom.
With one foot in the memories that haunt him, Michael struggles to look to the future and nail down exactly how he will upstage himself with his “Dangerous World Tour.” He’s battling demons from his past and new ones in his present. When inspiration creeps in, his talent and love for song and dance outshine everything else.
Reasons to take mature elementary kids, tweens and teens
There is plenty to admire about the production. The lighting design, sound design, and choreography each won a Tony, and for good reason. The scenes move through one another like a river might flow from one destination to the next; there is no break or transition between scenes, creating a personal and emotional journey. The set is relatively simple, and the production relies on the performers’ talent and the audience’s imagination to keep up with Michael’s story.
But the number one reason to see “MJ” is two words: Roman Banks. Taking on a real-life figure, not to mention one as iconic and popular as Michael Jackson, is riddled with booby traps into which an actor may stumble, quickly revealing they are not the person they are attempting to portray. Banks nails every aspect of the role.
He moves with Michael’s signature finesse. In addition to mastering the moonwalk that became his famous stage trick, Banks even incorporates the smallest of mannerisms that anyone familiar with the pop star would recognize. He transforms his voice to mimic the “Billie Jean” singer’s frequent use of falsetto, mingled with guttural breaths, creating his signature beatbox rhythm. He speaks with Michael’s soft and gentle cadence for the many lines of dialogue he must deliver while moving, singing, and acting simultaneously. For a little while, it almost felt like the King of Pop had taken the stage once again.
He’s not the only MJ either. Little Michael (Bane Griffith) and teenage Michael (Brandon Lee Harris) are just as talented, tackling his work in the Jackson 5 and in his early solo career. The greatest joy of the production is seeing these Michaels frequently overlap, winking at one another without breaking character, allowing past and present to seamlessly flow from one to the other. The weight of the talent on the stage is nearly enough to bring the whole dais to the ground. “MJ the Musical” is a thriller. You can’t beat it, and you will love the way it makes you feel.
Know before you go
“MJ the Musical” plays at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre from December 7-17. NOTE: The theater discourages bringing children under age 4 to most performances. The show runs for approximately two hours and thirty minutes, with one intermission. Tickets run $19 and up.