Cirque du Soleil and Michael Jackson…a perfect combination…for the most part. Two brilliant entities that have always taken entertainment and humanitarianism to an out-of-this-world level have decided to collaborate and create Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour.
Being a fan of both of them, I followed the developments of this project very closely. Believe it or not I auditioned to be a dancer for this show. It took a lot of time and effort to create the application DVD with performance footage and introductions. Obviously, I did not get in, but it was a fulfilling and learning experience. Initially, my plan was to see the show at its Las Vegas premiere in the summer of 2012, however that was postponed till 2013 because they are planning to build a theater for the show…which takes a little more time. So I decided to catch the tour in Las Vegas at Mandalay Bay. I don’t want to give away all the surprises, so I will describe a few aspects of the performance and later give my critique of the entire production.
The events center at Mandalay Bay has cramped seating. The stage has an extended piece that leads to a circular stage in the middle of the arena. As we waited for show time, a medley of Michael Jackson songs filled the arena with a large curtain depicting a tree and MJ initials. Fog was continuously sprayed to maintain the magical atmosphere. Finally, the lights dimmed and the audience applauded.
The show begins with an extended version of “Working Day and Night.” Four men, dressed as Michael Jackson fans, appear within the audience and walk on stage. They proceed to paint a wall, which is actually a large screen, while the music is playing. They do a few acrobatics on the screen and dance routines on stage. At the end of the song, a painting of one of Michael’s signature poses is on the screen. The four guys leave the stage as another character appears on the extended side of the stage. Dressed in a sparkling silver jump suit, a silver cap, and white face paint, he starts robotically dancing. He moves toward the painting while it starts to dissolve. The music changes with the sound of a clock. Then the rest of the stage lights up and multiple screens depict a kaleidoscope of Michael’s music videos and performances. This of course ends with a flash and a bang.
The silver character returns to the stage as the gates to Neverland Ranch are positioned. Statues of children come to life as Michael sings “Childhood.” The dance routine brings the statues and the silver character to the extended part of the stage as a large hot-air balloon floats towards them. A large window with a puppet like depiction of a 9 year-old Michael is on the main part of the stage watching the hot-air balloon. The silver character takes the heart that is attached to the hot air balloon while the statues return to the gate. The silver character makes his way to the main stage and disappears into the floor. The Neverland gates move and close on each other to create a tree trunk.
The lights change color and we awaken by the energy of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something.” Their version has more of a jungle feel, not only with the music, but the dancers and acrobats were dressed as miniature trees….or something of that nature. A drummer appears on the extended stage and plays an array of bongo drums that are attached to his shoulders. While he is jamming, the miniature trees are running around, balancing on the tree trunk, and dancing. With more lights on stage, the audience finally gets to see the rest of the band, who are elevated at the back of the stage. At the end, the drummer disappears and the lights dim again.
Fast forward to “They Don’t Care About Us,” a futuristic army of soldiers march with the same footage from the This Is It Tour. Descending towards the front of the stage a question mark glows on each soldiers chest. As the song progresses, footage of the prison version music video is depicted on the large screens. The back up singers walk towards the extended stage as the soldiers glow a peace sign. The singers chant “they don’t care about us” and try to get the audience to sing and clap along. The music continues and the soldiers continue with a really cool routine combining the original choreography with an added twist. At the end, the soldiers glow a heart.
The last song I am going to mention is the Immortal Mega Mix, which includes “Can You Feel It,” “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough.” “Billie Jean,” and “Black or White.” Dancing on top of a fixture of lights is Bubbles the Chimp, while acrobats swing left to right underneath him. Then a group of dancers with glowing jump suits make their way to the extended stage and start dancing. Then more people run through the audience with flags to end with “Black or White.” This routine really showed how much fun the band was having, as if they were having their own party.
In terms of production, there are two aspects – music direction and creative direction. In regards to the music, which was directed by Greg Phillinganes and designed by Kevin Antunes, it was beyond remarkable. Every song felt like a new and exclusive experience. Michael’s voice conducted the entire show, without any distortions or edits. The music adaptations fitted perfectly without overshadowing or clashing with his voice. It truly was the best tribute I have ever heard to Michael’s legacy as a vocalist and composer. I was happy to learn that Phillinganes was the same keyboardist who started working with Michael during the “Bad Tour.” Counting down to the Tour premiere in October, Phillinganes posted videos to introduce the band members and the music designer and had everyone explain their connection to Michael and why they are on the tour. Antunes had access to the master tracks of Michael’s entire catalogue and was able to manipulate the composition while staying true to the original. I congratulate both of them for a job well done.
On the other hand, the creative direction is still in need of some work. Jamie King was the writer and director and Chantal Tremblay was the director of creation. I could see where they were trying to weave a story into the soundtrack. A large giving tree, which didn’t fully appear in the show I saw, is supposed to go through multiple transformations determined by Michael’s mood in the song: from youth, to destruction, to rebirth. Fragments of Michael’s signature choreography was featured, but it did not seem enough. The main character, in the silver costume, tried to dance like Michael and conduct the other characters, but he did not seem to have enough energy, nor could move as well as Michael. Surprisingly, I found Thriller a disappointment. Throughout the show there were too many empty spaces and disjointed routines. The costumes were lovely, but what they were doing in the costumes was not up to par. Basically, the absence of Michael’s presence, energy, and showmanship was strikingly present.
Overall, Cirque du Soleil put together a nice tribute to Michael, but there is room for a lot more. Compared to clips of their Beatles and Elvis tributes, I’m not sure what caused the Michael Jackson show to be less than those productions. I’m definitely planning to see the permanent production in 2013, which according to Cirque du Soleil, will be a completely different performance compared to the tour. Hopefully they can fill in some of the holes by that time.