“There are a lot of strange stories making the rounds,” says a documentary filmmaker interviewing Michael Jackson.
Michael Jackson was such a magnet for strange stories that they nearly obliterated his gift. Yet in defensively brushing off the ones that don’t matter while pointedly ignoring the one that does, the new musical “MJ,” which opened on Tuesday at the Neil Simon Theater, may be the strangest Michael Jackson story yet.
Not all strangeness is bad, of course, and within the confines of the biographical jukebox genre, “MJ,” with a book by Lynn Nottage, is actually pretty good — for a while. Directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, whose ballet background has found a natural outlet in dance musicals like “An American in Paris,” the show starts with confidence and verve in a natural setting: the rehearsal room. There, Jackson, along with his dancers, backup singers and band, is in the final stages of preparation for his 1992 Dangerous tour, a four-continent, 15-month marathon.
That framing means that our first look at the musical’s version of Jackson is as a man at work, without the distraction of Bubbles the chimp, the Elephant Man bones, the hyperbaric chamber, the fading skin color, the disappearing nose — or the accusations of pedophilia that would begin to emerge a year later, at first in tabloids and then in lawsuits and eventually in police investigations.
As such, we get the joy of discovery, both of Jackson before the fall and of Myles Frost, a real find in the role. Singing “Beat It” as he enters, Frost offers not just a willowy simulacrum of the star in perfect copies (by the designer Paul Tazewell) of his classic regalia — black jacket, gold brocade, tilted fedora, white socks scrunched to the ankles — but an eerie mimicry of his mannerisms. The breathy voice; the head-down, eyes-up gaze; the interjectory squeals and yelps: Frost has them down cold.
Perhaps too cold. Absent any deeper revelation of the singer’s character, Frost’s performance of the songs — which include MTV-era chartbusters like “Bad,” “Billie Jean,” “Man in the Mirror” and “Thriller” as well as less-familiar numbers — soon begins to seem animatronic, as if he were created by Disney imagineers. It doesn’t help that there are so many of them; 37 titles are listed in the program, some barely one-verse samples.
But Wheeldon’s choreography — performed by Frost along with a superb if amazingly jacked ensemble — remains compelling longer, offering a three-dimensional version of what most of us have seen only from distant arena seats or in dark videos on depthless screens. (The show’s “Michael Jackson movement” is credited to two additional choreographers, Rich + Tone Talauega.) The stage patterns are far more varied and expressive than in similar musicals, scoring points without words as they deliver the thrills and, following the biomusical road map, pave the way between present and past.
Take the sequence in which the Jackson 5 makes a smash appearance singing “ABC” at an Apollo Theater amateur night in 1969. Seamlessly Wheeldon swirls the giddy brothers from the stage to a scene of celebration in their hotel room, at least until their perfectionist father (Quentin Earl Darrington) demands, with the warmth of a cult leader, that despite their exhaustion they rehearse into the night. When the preteen Michael (Christian Wilson at the performance I saw) stands up to him and gets slapped so hard he falls to the floor, his mother (Ayana George) comforts him by singing “I’ll Be There” as he goes to bed.
What Katherine Jackson’s responsibility might have been, besides providing a lullaby, is not considered; she is still alive. In any case, after all this, Wheeldon returns us to the 1992 rehearsal room with a trenchant gesture: The dancers pull the linens away to reveal the bed as a bunch of tour trunks.
Jackson’s was undoubtedly a hard childhood. Though Nottage uses clichés from the jukebox playbook to dramatize that story — including an interviewer to prompt the reminiscences (Whitney Bashor) and three actors to divvy up the role at different ages (Tavon Olds-Sample is delightful as the teenage Michael) — she does so crisply and in a format that makes it seem almost natural. Having members of the 1992 entourage take all the supporting roles in the flashback scenes is both efficient and convincing.
But the tale is mostly humorless, a problem not alleviated by Jackson’s occasional impish antics (he shoots a water pistol at his business manager) or the constant underlining of the emotional argument. (“You sang that song like you’ve been living with heartbreak all of your life,” Berry Gordy tells the preteen Michael after he performs “I Want You Back.”) As the joys of the early scenes begin to fade, “MJ” settles for baldly providing, in the relatively small space allotted to words, an avalanche of astonishing and sorrowful facts.
Which is why the absence of the biggest one is so jarring.
In agreeing to write what is essentially an authorized biography — the show has been produced “by special arrangement with the Michael Jackson estate” — Nottage apparently made a compromise: She would note his minor oddities while avoiding the most troubling accusations against him. Even so, there are pat explanations for every peccadillo, from the plastic surgeries (“This is Hollywood,” Jackson says. “Who hasn’t gotten a new nose?”) to the hyperbaric chamber (“I started that rumor. I thought it would be funny”). His father’s viciousness is likewise given a gloss coat of justification: “My hand ain’t nearly as heavy as the world’s gonna be on your Black ass if you step outta line,” he says.
In this, “MJ” is trying to have it both ways. It wants to blame everything sad and weird about Jackson on others (especially the press, who are equated with the zombies in “Thriller”) but credit him alone for his every good deed and success. Acknowledgment of the choreographers and songwriters he collaborated with is mostly saved for the program.
This defensiveness, constantly asserting his genius as if it were in question, eventually becomes dulling, like any act of bad faith. And so as the show, anticipating its star’s trajectory, disintegrates in the second half, the pleasure that compensated for its inherent ickiness can no longer do the job. “MJ” becomes a grind of obfuscation, a case of willfully not looking at the man in the mirror.
Would it have been possible to make this musical otherwise? Could you successfully market as a family-friendly Broadway extravaganza a show whose main character, though never convicted of a crime, settles two sexual abuse cases out of court and dies before two others are dismissed because the statute of limitations has run out?
Unlikely — and perhaps you could argue that Broadway is not in any case the place to interrogate such questions. Musicals based on real people have always elided their worst traits. Even that fascist enabler Eva Perón was sugarcoated and sanctified. Of course, her estate did not have a “special arrangement” with the producers of “Evita.”
Ultimately, the problem with “MJ” is not its ethical stance but the way that stance distorts its value as entertainment. Even the combined power of Jackson’s material and Wheeldon’s reanimation of it cannot make up for the emptiness at its center; we cannot understand or accept the main character if he’s deliberately kept from us.
A line from “Man in the Mirror” applies here as well: “If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make a change.” What “MJ” needed was either a lot more time to pass before daring to mount it — or a different, deeper, more considered main character.
At the Neil Simon Theater, Manhattan; mjthemusical.com. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.