Michael Jackson – The Immortal World Tour
Cirque du Soleil
We were in London in the summer of 2009 and the city was overtly curious if the forthcoming Michael Jackson near-residency at the O2 Arena would indeed be the King of Pop’s return to form after a 12 year hiatus. Health issues and stories of creative challenges in the rehearsals caused folks to gasp when the initial run was extended to 50 dates (and a three year world tour). No company would insure the tour past the first ten shows. By the time we got to Italy, it was Michael Jackson music non-stop everywhere, not even the gondolas in Venice were silent. Jackson had died less than a month before opening night, and any future concerts were never to be.
Already in the works was a production with Cirque du Soleil, and the result is the closest we’ll get to a Michael Jackson concert. Presently on tour, The Immortal World Tour delivers a satisfying interpretation of the spectacle that surrounded Jackson. Unlike the Cirque du Soleil productions based in Las Vegas, and like the other touring Cirque productions, The Immortal World Tour has an intermission.
The first half gets off to an unexpectedly slow start, relying on the audience’s inherent excitement to keep things moving. Several introductory numbers portray his Neverland fantasy-come-to-life existence and the overt robbery of his childhood. Not until “Wanna Be Starting Something” does the infectious rhythms get underway. Then comes the ideal segue into a Jackson 5 medley.
Cirque’s signature lithe gymnastics and razor sharp choreography weave through each scene. The impressive video and lighting effects heighten the experience, with moving scrims and screens and shifting stage heights. Costume designer Zaldy Goco wisely echoes Jackson’s signature look; rarely has a performer’s costumes been so tightly connected to specific songs. Goco designed no less than 252 costumes for the production.
Jackson has an inscrutable juxtaposition of love and violence, the latter admittedly cartoonish in “Smooth Criminal” and the machine gunnery of “Dangerous.” Another inexplicable juxtaposition is his quest for harmony and penchant for military stylings, the latter quite evident in “They Don’t Care About Us.” An army of jackbooted robots dances to Jackson’s song about tolerance, with buzzkill videos of street violence and childhood hunger. This is It, the documentary cobbled together from rehearsals of the ill-fated final tour of the same name, shows the evolution of “They Don’t Care About Us.”
A very clever scene is “Scary Story / Is It Scary” where a book comes to life. A contortionist writhes from the pages of a horror story. The first act winds up with “Thriller,” recreating the groundbreaking MTV clips of years gone by.
The far more impressive second act opens with the best scene, an aerial ballet to the tune of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” Jackson’s iconographic glove and dancing shoes come to life next in “Beat It.” A searing guitar soloist duels with an electric cellist, who is intriguingly dressed in a bikini, undoubtedly affording her more limber movements. The basketball-centric “Jam” echoes the video of the dueling Michaels: Jackson and Jordan.
The evening builds to a climax with a stirring medley of “Can You Feel It / Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough / Billie Jean / Black or White.” A soaring team of acrobats on Swiss rings perform, and then dancers in LED-embedded costumes change colors as the mega-mix evolves. A phalanx of flag-bearers streams through the audience as the music builds to a climax.
The cast takes its curtain call to the tune of a very powerful “Man in the Mirror,” Jackson’s most fully-realized song. Of all the marvelous dancers, the crowd favorite is certainly the one-legged Jean Sok. As with all Cirque productions, an Everyman courses through the evening as a representative of the audience. For The Immortal World Tour, that role is fulfilled by The Mime, the evocative Salah Benlemqawansa.
The musicians perform live to the recorded Jackson vocal tracks, with musical director and longtime Jackson compadre Greg Phillinganes and drummer John ‘Sugarfoot’ Moffett undoubtedly most responsible for keeping everything on track.
Cirque du Soleil has thus far produced three music-based productions, and I found this Michael Jackson version far better than the Elvis Presley version, but short of the superb Beatles LOVE production. Once The Immortal World Tour winds down, it is scheduled to take residence in Las Vegas in 2013, in slightly altered form.
It is doubtful the world will push to the top of the charts another music celebrity to rival the Mt Rushmore of Lennon, Marley, Jackson, Presley, Hendrix and Morrison. Perhaps only with the death of McCartney or Bono will there be a global outpouring of emotion; there is simply no one on the musical horizon to rival these pioneers. Call it the diffusion via the internet, the death of the album or some other mystery.
In the interim, The Immortal World Tour blends the time-tested finesse of Cirque du Soleil with the inarguable (and sadly wasted) talent of Michael Jackson.