The bio jukebox musical genre has done well on Broadway, with Beautiful, Tina, Jersey Boys and more bringing to light the complex stories of those stars through the music they created. The latest in the genre, MJ, which just opened on Broadway, attempted to follow in its predecessor’s footsteps; but by all critical accounts, the script felt so redacted and PR-forward in presenting Michael Jackson as victim that the show ultimately feels hallow and feckless, despite the appeal of the music, stunning costumes, powerhouse performances, and iconic choreography. If you’re looking for anything deep, interesting or thought-provoking about the man, this is not the show for you; but if you’re wanting to turn up the music loud and pretend allegations of sexual abuse were never leveled at the man, you might do worse than MJ.
New York Times Review of MJ
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. …[T]he show starts with confidence and verve…[and] we get the joy of discovery, both of Jackson before the fall and of Myles Frost … a willowy simulacrum of the star in perfect copies (by the designer Paul Tazewell) of his classic regalia … [and] 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…soon begins to seem animatronic, as if he were created by Disney imagineers. But Wheeldon’s choreography — performed by Frost along with a superb if amazingly jacked ensemble — remains compelling longer. … Nottage apparently made a compromise: She would note his minor oddities while avoiding the most troubling accusations against him. … 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. … What “MJ” needed was either a lot more time to pass before daring to mount it — or a different, deeper, more considered main character.
TimeOut Review of MJ
Expertly directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, MJ does about as well as possible within its careful brief. In and of itself, it is a deftly crafted jukebox nostalgia trip. Lynn Nottage’s script weaves together three dozen songs, mostly from the Jackson catalog. The music and the dancing are sensational. And isn’t that, the show suggests, really the point in the end? Doesn’t that beat all? MJ is manifestly aimed at people who either believe in Jackson’s innocence or who are able and willing to enjoy his work despite questions about his guilt. … The design is deluxe: dazzling period costumes by Paul Tazewell, a smooth set by Derek McLane, flashy lighting by Natasha Katz, vivid arrangements by Jason Michael Webb and David Holcenberg. On the night I saw the show, the crowd responded with huge applause. The dancers and singers of the ensemble, who double as secondary characters, are first-rate, and Wheeldon gives them a lot to do. … I left the theater entertained, but not convinced I had really seen the man in the smoke and mirrors.
Variety Review of MJ
In answer to the question of whether it’s possible to separate the art from the artist, “MJ” performs a slick, crotch-grabbing sidestep. Packed with nearly 40 hits from Michael Jackson’s irresistible catalogue, the Broadway production from director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon is not so much a biomusical as a high-shine and surface-skimming rehabilitation tour for its late subject, flattening rather than reckoning with his complex legacy. “With respect, I wanna keep this about my music,” insists Jackson early on, played in the story’s present day by Myles Frost, impressive in perhaps an impossible role. … The narrative premise from book writer Lynn Nottage (Pulitzer winner for “Ruined” and “Sweat”) creates a suggestion of scrutiny, though the results are less than revelatory. … But maybe it’s the closest to portraiture we can expect of an idol worshiped for his ambiguity and artifice as much as his soul. … “MJ” delivers on its promise of fan service, from costume pieces by Paul Tazewell — that glittery glove and cocked black hat — to nostalgic trips through Soul Train and “Thriller” nights on Derek McLane’s set. But Wheeldon and Nottage make a show of gesturing behind the music only to insist that their contested subject had nothing to hide.
Deadline Review of MJ
Has any Broadway production in recent (or even not so recent) memory arrived with as much emotional baggage – or carried it as lightly – as the visually and sonically ravishing MJ? The Michael Jackson musical, as unlikely as such a prospect might have seemed a year ago, now appears poised to take Manhattan with the same hurricane force that the real Jackson funneled when he moonwalked into television history on Motown 25. If MJ can’t contain the shock of the new that turned his 1983 television performance into an era-defining moment, it is in no short supply of its own thrills, not least the reminder, after all these years of scandal and accusations, that we once observed, in real time, the blossoming of undeniable talent into unavoidable genius. That’s a transition, not since equaled, that director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, book write Lynn Nottage and an impeccable cast led by the star-is-born Myles Frost, bring to pulse-quickening life on the stage. To address the elephant man in the room: While MJ depicts Jackson’s drug problems, raises (if only to dismiss) charges of racial self-loathing, references the Bubbles-and-Joseph Merrick eccentricities, the third-rail allegations of child molestation go unstated if not entirely ignored. … Watching MJ, one easily suspects its top-flight creative team was motivated by the same near-maniacal drive [Jackson had]. Aside from the pedestrian framing device, MJ pushes hard and unceasingly to move beyond the just-good-enough nostalgia that can turn even second-rate jukebox productions into crowd pleasers. It succeeds: MJ is a wildly entertaining marvel. … Over the course of its two acts, MJ presents one hit after another, the orchestrations and arrangements by David Holcenberg and Jason Michael Webb a fitting testament to Jackson’s impossible standards, and Gareth Owen’s superb sound design capturing each and every intricate rhythm. The songs breathe fire.
The New York Post Review of MJ
The troubles over at “MJ: The Musical,” the new show about Michael Jackson that opened Tuesday night on Broadway, are much bigger than the controversy surrounding its subject — although the two are closely connected. While the lifeless script is written by Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage of “Ruined,” the pat dialogue feels as if it was co-authored by a lawyer for the Jackson estate — one of the producers — with Wite-Out and a Sharpie. When Michael (Myles Frost, terrific) isn’t speaking in hokey motivational phrases — “An elephant is always ready to go because he sleeps standing up” — he’s giving vague p.r. statements of innocence about unspecified infractions. … In skipping over the most dramatic parts of his life, Nottage seeks to disconnect the artist from the art. … But “MJ,” directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, does not match or really approach the electricity of the King of Pop, who was an unparalleled live performer. The rehearsal-room setting and narrative randomness, particularly in the winding second act, tamps down the concert energy. That’s not the fault of Frost, the absurdly talented newcomer who captures Jackson’s voice and physicality well. On the contrary, we feel lucky to be witnessing the birth of a new Broadway star. The same is true of the wonderful Tavon Olds-Sample as “Thriller”-era Michael who, beaming, transports us back to the 1980s, even when the production around the actor does not. As mom Katherine Jackson, Ayana George has the show’s best musical moment when she duets on “I’ll Be There” with her son. All, however, are hobbled by an indecisive script — the documentary plot and backstory are clumsily combined, and the cartoonish characters are straight outta “Scooby-Doo” — and low-energy, unattractive staging.