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Fabulous ‘MJ the Musical’ in Chicago

Before the pandemic, “MJ the Musical” was seen as a risky project when it was first released for Broadway. The main issue was controversial. Broadway was drowning in musical biographies, and the Jackson estate was so famous for its tight control over Michael’s image and reputation that wise minds wondered how writer Lynn Nottage would find the space for honesty. And while choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s reputation is formidable, Jackson’s choreographic landscape was not only very familiar, but repeated in one homage after another, from the Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas to bars on Chicago’s South Side.

Yet we were all at Chicago’s jam-packed Nederlander Theater Wednesday night for the official opening of the first national tour that was already a hit during Broadway’s rough times. The audience had the kind of diversity most theaters could only dream of, and the atmosphere was utterly exciting. The action on stage was stopped several times by a standing ovation, and I continued to hear various impromptu vocalizations of the “wow” variations from where I was sitting. If you were in doubt about the intensity and dedication of Jackson fans from multiple generations, here was proof of endless love and this show’s ability to still blow them up.

The tour has a new roster: Roman Banks plays now Michael himself and he are quite different from Myles Frost. Source of the role on Broadway. Banks delivers a poignant, vulnerable, emotion-centered performance that doesn’t try to dance offstage with the other MJs as much as trying to get to the core of a man who has never fully emerged from Gary’s childhood. She is a very sophisticated piece of musical acting and raises the bar for what we watch.

“MJ the Musical” is set during rehearsals for Jackson’s extraordinary fantasy tour of “Dangerous,” which hit the roads between June 1992 and November 1993. ). Unfortunately for Jackson, even though HBO threw in another $20 million for the cable rights, it was money this wasteful wasteful had already spent on the show. By this point, Jackson was at his artistic peak, experimenting with different sounds and also moving from a hooked repertoire to more daring, earthy music with more palpable themes of social consciousness and responsibility. It is not unimportant that non-musical debates did not take over his life as thoroughly as they did in such a short time.

The show uses an intrusive MTV interview crew in the rehearsal room (in reality, Jackson filmed everything he did) as his medium to reveal the MJ story. It portrays Michael as an artistic perfectionist, first a victim of his own childhood, then of his own fame. It’s tough for family man Joe Jackson, who emerges as a cruel and abusive womanizer who pushes his children to breaking point and causes lasting psychological damage. Of course, the elder Jackson died in 2018 and although he was in no condition to defend himself, there is real-world evidence of this.

One of the show’s split props is that Joe, who appears mostly in pre-1992 flashbacks, is played by the same actor as Rob, a kind man who works for Jackson and worries about him, in “Dangerous.” It’s a daunting task, and I was blown away by how well Devin Bowles did this touring cast and how deftly avoided the cliché. Most of the other characters, including siblings, are ensemble roles, but the Jackson episode is split into three, with Brandon Lee Harris playing the middle version and (in my performance) Josiah Benson playing the kid. Both are good young actors, but the show is structured in such a way that the adult version of Banks will run the story.

Roman Banks and his cast "musical MJ" At the Nederlander Theater in Chicago.

In case you were wondering, the show features some 40 of Jackson’s hits, with stage time in particular given to epic songs from the albums “Thriller”, “Bad” and “Dangerous”. Most digital media from Derek McLane, Peter Nigrini (a genius) and Natasha Katz (ditto) came to Chicago from the Broadway production.

In the end though, this jukebox show has become a hit due to phenomenal success and it belongs to Wheeldon.

The movement in the show is recognizably Jackson gestalt, but it’s not a duplicate. A fresh, independent, complex and often dazzlingly beautiful choreographic suite interpreted not by the dancing actors but above all by the dancers. Now that I’ve seen him a few times, I’ve grown in awe of how well Wheeldon has met the challenge of expanding everyone’s choreographic vocabulary, both presentationally and emotionally, while presenting the moves people thought they were coming to see. A perfect combination of originality and reference, art and commerce, respect and the most subtle challenges to note. And just like the King of Pop it’s great to watch.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

cjones5@chicagotribune.com

Review: “MJ the Musical” (3.5 stars)

When: By September 2

Where: Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.

Duration: 2 hours, 35 minutes

Tickets: $52.50-132.50 at 800-775-2000 and www.broadwayinchicago.com

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