Theater Review: MJ THE MUSICAL (First National Tour)

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by Dan Zeff on March 7, 2024

in Theater-Regional,Theater-San Diego,Tours


The musical biography of Michael Jackson (tersely titled MJ) is playing a brief one-week run at the San Diego Civic Theatre as part of a national tour. The show is an exhilarating audience experience whenever the hugely talented large cast sings and dances. When the music stops and the talking takes over, not so much.

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

MJ begins in a rehearsal room at a Los Angeles theater in 1992, where the performers are preparing for an ambitious international tour while Jackson is being interviewed by MTV. Ending 150 minutes later, the show has taken us on a zig-zag chronological tour of Jackson’s life from his childhood in the 1960s through his glory years, ending with his career in peril. MJ is ablaze with 22 of his classic songs, including familiar numbers like “Beat It”, “Thriller”, and golden oldies from the Motown era of rock music that made Michael Jackson’s discography one for the ages. It’s also filled with his signature moves, deftly recreated by Rich + Tone Talauega.

Roman Banks as MJ

The star of the production is diminutive dynamo Roman Banks, who puts the role of Jackson through the character’s paces with his highly energized acting, dancing, and singing. Banks bears a passing facial and vocal resemblance to the King of Pop and he has a motor that absolutely will not stop (Jamal Fields-Green plays Jackson in some performances to give Banks a breather from the extraordinary physical demands of the role).

Jaylen Lyndon Hunter as Little Marlon, Ethan Joseph as Little Michael

The supporting roles are all delivered with top drawer professionalism starting with Josiah Benson as young Michael and Bryce A. Holmes as Michael’s kid brother Marlon. All the adult parts are filled with pinpoint skill, the actors often doubling and beyond in roles, notably by Devin Bowles as both Michael’s manager and father, Josh A. Dawson as composer/bandleader Quincy Jones, Anastasia Talley as the matriarch of the Jackson family, and J. Daughtry as record studio impresario Berry Gordy.

Brandon Lee Harris as Michael

The physical production is a high-tech stunner. British director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon puts his ballet background to terrific use in dazzling song and dance displays carried out by a sizzling chorus. The jaw-dropping visual and aural components of the dance sequences are by an exceptional design team: 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. With great sound by Garth Owens, the on-stage band directed by Victor Simonson keeps the music rocking.

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

With so much exceptional artistic talent on stage and behind the scenes, why is my overall reaction to MJ less than wholehearted? Part of the problem resides with the book by Lynn Nottage, one of the notable writers in current American literature. Nottage has contributed a ton of words to the script, but their cumulative effect is to flatten out the flavor of the show. I would have traded a large percentage of the play’s  verbiage for an equivalent insertion from the Michael Jackson video of “Thriller.”

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

The book barely probes Jackson’s much publicized personal problems toward the end of his life, notably the alleged sexual abuse of boys, which darkened his final years. Maybe the material was deemed inappropriate for exploration in depth for this vehicle, though there were a few glancing references, like noting the whitening of his facial skin. Still, the controversies that dogged him would have been on the minds of much of the audience and deserved fuller examination.

But the excellence of the production overrides whatever defects a viewer may find in MJ. I can’t remember when I have enjoyed such an abundance of high-level singing, dancing and special effects from so many theater artists in a single show.

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

photos by Matthew Murphy, MurphyMade

MJ The Musical
first national tour
at the San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Avenue, until March 10, 2024
next stop Tempe, AZ
for tour dates and cities, visit MJ The Musical

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