Clearly, CIRQUE du Soleil's "Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour" is a major undertaking -- a loud and lavish, multimedia celebration of the "King of Pop" boasting a budget in excess of $50 million, a cast and crew numbering 220.
As an arena rock concert spectacle -- how creators view it -- the production dwarfs Madonna and Lady Gaga's wildest touring fantasies. Planned to circle the globe for more than three years, the thing's loaded to the gills with lavishly costumed dancers and daredevil acrobatic acts, a 12-piece band, high-tech video screens, fanciful props and in-your-face pyrotechnic explosions.
Along with a huge and highly animated main stage, there's a motorized conveyor belt ramp feeding performers to and from a midcourt second stage. So much floor space is consumed that there's room for only 10,000 to 12,000 spectators, even in a building like the Wells Fargo Center, where the show plays Tuesday and Wednesday and which normally accommodates as many as 21,000 patrons for concerts.
There's only one element missing: the top-billed star.
Of course Michael Jackson's singing and spoken voice is ever present, mixed (and sometimes mashed up) with that live band and singers led by Jackson's longtime keyboardist Greg Phillinganes.
Jackson's visage is often flashing on the video screens, too, with a number of clips borrowed from the "This Is It" stage show (and posthumous documentary film) he was working on for a London debut before his death at age 50 on June 25, 2009.
"Michael's spirit is reflected in every aspect of the show," noted choreographer Travis Payne, another of the true believers and keepers of the flame connected to this project. Payne cut his teeth -- as did "Immortal World Tour" writer/director Jamie King -- in the dance ensemble of Jackson's 1992-93 "Dangerous" concert show.
Yet for some spectators, including the trio of tweens plopped behind me at a recent Prudential Center performance in Newark, N.J., the message that "Michael has left the building" still hasn't sunk in, even 34 months after his sad demise.
Before the show, the little girls were warming up for the night's festivities with piercing screams and snippets of their favorite Jackson ditties. When the show kicked into gear, though, they grew hushed and pretty much stayed that way. At intermission, I overheard one ask her mom, "Why is the mime the star?"
The juggling act
Devotees of the French-Canadian performance art-circus troupe have to be chuckling over that line. Virtually every Cirque show features a clownish mime -- this one's dressed in a silvery, sequined, M.J.-ish jumpsuit -- who gleefully leads us into the grand and mysterious adventure.
But unlike the fairly linear, Cirque-created Beatles "Love" celebration (still pulling crowds after five years to the Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas), this show ebbs and flows in dream time, juggling material more for artistic pacing than for a HIStory lesson.
The Jackson tribute does much of its mourning at the outset, setting the tone with the singer/composer's poignant ballad reflection on the "Childhood" he missed the first time around and would later make up for as best and as oddly as he could. (FYI: Back in the day, when this then- novice journalist had the chance to chat with a 12-year-old Michael Jackson, I asked what he did "for fun" in his "spare time." The silence from the other end of the phone line was deafening. "When we're not performing, we're rehearsing," he finally said. Oh.)
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