Theater Review: MJ The Musical (First National Tour)

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by Tony Frankel on January 5, 2024

in Theater-Regional,Tours


MJ The Musical, now on its first national tour, raises the bar for the bio-musical. It far exceeds a mere revue of Michael Jackson’s iconic music and performance choreography. Set in the rehearsal hall for Jackson’s 1992 Dangerous World Tour, the story follows a documentarian from MTV (Mary Kate Moore as Rachel) and her cameraman (Da’Von T. Moody as Alejandro) , who are both allowed entre into press-weary Michael’s inner sanctum to chronical his creative process. Michael fears his truths will be twisted and insists that his music speak for itself. Flashbacks ensue, and through the expertise of designers Derek McLane’s morphing sets, Natasha Katz’s state-of-the-art light show, Peter Nigrini’s projections, Paul Tazewell’s era-spanning costumes, Charles G. LaPointe’s transformative wigs, Joe Dulude II’s makeup, and David Holcenberg’s musical arrangements, we are seamlessly transported to theater venues, nightclubs, TV studios, and the film set of “Thriller,” which strikingly appears with an audible audience gasp and disappears with the magic of theater.

Roman Banks as MJ, Mary Kate Moore as Rachel
Roman Banks as MJ

The simple but effective premise leads us on an intimate journey where we encounter the angels (his mother Katherine, Anastasia Talley) and demons (his abusive father Joseph, Devin Bowles, who also plays tour manager Rob) that drove “the gloved one” to his musical brilliance and emotional dark side. We also meet the Jackson 5 siblings Jackie (Jay McKenzie), Tito (Josh A. Dawson, who doubles as Quincy Jones), Jermaine (Jacobi Kai), and Marlon (Jaylen Lyndon Hunter and later Brion Marquis Watson). Not only is the storytelling smart and unpredictable, (a rarity in the bio-musical), MJ is ablaze with 22 of the classic songs that made Michael Jackson’s discography one for the ages. It’s also filled with his signature moves, deftly recreated by Rich + Tone Talauega. Most unexpected is a dance in act two that pays homage to the men who influenced Michael’s work: the Nicholas Brothers (Chelsea Mitchell-Bonsu and Brion Marquis Watson), Fred Astaire (Matteo Marretta), and Bob Fosse (Kyle Dupree). Indeed, under director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, this is easily the biggest dance musical from Broadway; the energy that is stirred up is electric — from the opening scene all the way through the curtain call and exit music — celebrating all that was brilliant in Michael Jackson.

Devin Bowles as Rob and Roman Banks as MJ
Roman Banks as MJ

Three actors portray Michael: Little Michael of the Jackson 5, played by Ethan Joseph (see Stage and Cinema‘s interview) alternating with Josiah Benson; teenage Michael (Brandon Lee Harris); and adult Michael of Off the WallThriller and Bad (an indefatigable Roman Banks). All three Michaels are outstanding and hold their own along with the rest of the extremely talented cast and musicians. From the first scene in a rehearsal studio, Mr. Banks enters fully possessing the celebrity presence of the King of Pop. He so convincingly embodies Michael Jackson that he leaves one feeling as if you’ve been in the presence of the real “man in the mirror.” He sounds like Michael, sings and dances like Michael, he even captures that innocent bashful giggle that Michael had with his averted eyes and smile. This is a star-making tour de force performance requiring a level of singing, dancing and nuanced acting rarely seen on stage. Banks portrays the conflicted man/child Michael with the determination and complexity it took for his mild-mannered persona to rise to the heights of the fickle music industry.

Jaylen Lyndon Hunter as Little Marlon, Ethan Joseph as Little Michael
Brandon Lee Harris as Michael
Roman Banks as Michael

If you want drama and controversy, the documentary on HBO may be better suited. The Broadway musical focuses solely on the artistry of Michael Jackson and the struggle artists battle to fully realize their vision. Following in the footsteps of the Four Season’s magnificent Jersey Boys and Carol King’s poignant BeautifulMJ is the next step in the evolution of the American theater’s jukebox musical as it neither exonerates nor indicts the King of Pop – but rather allows the audience to experience MJ’s lifelong genius while applying their own meaning to his sudden and unexpected finale.

 Roman Banks as Michael
Brandon Lee Harris as Michael, Josh A. Dawson as Quincy Jones, Roman Banks as MJ

first national tour
at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre until January 28, 2024
next up: San Francisco Jan. 30 – Feb. 25
for tour dates and cities, visit MJ The Musical

Josiah Benson as Little Michael and Anastasia Talley as Katherine Jackson
Roman Banks as MJ

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Arlene January 6, 2024 at 5:16 pm

Totally agree with this review!


Will Welch January 7, 2024 at 12:00 pm

Great show.


Lena Allen January 7, 2024 at 1:58 pm

Absolutely great show!


Elizabeth Maniscalco January 10, 2024 at 8:33 am

I saw the show last year in New York!!! I loved it and hope to see it again this summer in Grand Rapids. It’s at the top of my list as the best show I have ever seen on Broadway! The energy was exhilarating! The talent impeccable!


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