Keeping a respectful distance
Overall, the tone of this Cirque tribute is more impressionistic than copycat. No one dares to lip-synch to Jackson's vocal tracks, except in a scene before the gates of Neverland, where a mixed lot of "Fanatics" move to the sounds of the Jackson 5 (and the gates eventually part, allowing the elephants and Jackson's pet chimp Bubbles out to play).
There isn't one Michael moonwalking onstage in "Beat It" or grabbing his crotch (a classic Travis Payne invention) in Cirque's restaging of "Thriller." Maybe a half-dozen of the undead dancers do the crotch-grabbing.
A whimsical giant dancing glove and matched pair of penny loafers also speak with his iconic, larger-than-life persona.
And given this is a Cirque show, several songs become fodder for gravity-defying acrobatics, from the jittery, jazzed-up "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' " that sends hip-hopping spiders scampering up and spray-painting on an animated video wall, to the scantily clad female pole dancer (Felix Cane) who personifies "Dangerous." Yeah, she's "Bad," too, but proved to be one of the best-received acts, along with an inspiring, one-legged dancer (Jean Sok) and the dazzlingly lit, high-flying sprites floating magically through the Neverland night in "Human Nature."
What would Michael do?
"Michael was always trying to top himself," said Phillinganes, who first worked with the guy on his breakout 1979 "Off the Wall" solo album. "And I fundamentally believe he would have liked this show -- even though I added horns to the band, which he never used in concert and thought were 'archaic,' " Phillinganes shared with a laugh.
"The guy was a huge fan of Cirque du Soleil, ever since he caught one of their tented shows in Santa Monica in 1987," Phillinganes also said. "He visited their headquarters in Montreal more than once. The last time, in 2004, Michael found the costume wing and lost his mind. He didn't want to leave. He really respected the creativity of the Cirque shows and how they obsessed on everything, down to the last little detail."
Jackson would surely be happy that Phillinganes has summoned up four other Jackson regulars -- drummer John "Sugarfoot" Moffett, bassist Don Boyette, guitarist Jon Myron Clark and backing singer Fred White -- to laser-lock the Cirque ensemble onto the isolated Jackson vocals (and computer-synchronized "click tracks") playing in their headphones. "Michael was not a self-contained artist like the Beatles; he relied a lot on the contributions of his musicians," said the keyboardist who laid down those memorable vamps on "Thriller" and shares composing credits with Jackson on the "Ultimate Collection" track "Cheater."
A rush to judgment
What do showgoers think of "Michael Jackson Immortal"? Web-posted comments are all over the map, from "loved every minute" to "what a disappointment." (Me, I'd award a not-perfect, mostly positive B+.)
Being a Jackson fan definitely helps in the attitude-adjustment department.
But where you're sitting in the arena also seems a factor, with the most expensive floor seats right in front of that thrust extension ironically proving the least desirable for taking in the whole multistage, multitasking spectacle. (My carefully picked press seats at the new North Jersey arena were on the side, 12 rows off the floor, about halfway back. Even there I missed a couple of things.)
Some Cirque fanatics have wished for more circus thrills and intimacy. The company's smaller-scaled, in-the-round tent shows and custom- theater Vegas creations play for 2,000 to 3,000 patrons.
From their perspective, some Jackson fans were expecting more storytelling, less of his earnest, save-the-world ballads (which Cirque treats to weighty tableaux) and for complete performances of up-tempo blockbusters such as "Billie Jean" and "Black or White" crammed here into a "Mega Mix."
Yeah, everybody's a critic.
Please note, though, that the most withering of showgoer comments -- suggesting dancers were sloppy and cues were being missed -- were posted during the extravaganza's early-on, end-of-2011 stint in Las Vegas and have since been corrected, said Payne. While a part of Jackson's Neverland Ranch lore, a malfunctioning, animated prop likewise dubbed "The Giving Tree" has largely been eliminated. Only the trunk remains.
"Normally, three to four years are devoted to developing a Cirque show," Payne explained. "This one was up and running in less than a year and a half. Truth is, it's still being fine-tuned."
Rush to judgment
That accelerated schedule was surely prompted by the immense ($252 million-grossing) worldwide popularity of "This Is It," the documentary released in late 2009, and the desire to bring a comparably grand stage tribute to fruition while the legend still had maximum luster.
"Other people were trying to get me involved in their Jackson tribute shows. This was the only one that seemed right and that had the complete support of the Jackson family," said Phillinganes. "They literally opened the music vaults for us, for Kevin Antunes and me to explore."
To expedite the creation, Payne was handed several "signature" Jackson songs to stage, while nine other choreographers also worked on numbers. Maybe there's a connection there to criticisms that the end results are "uneven."
The powers that be in Montreal have evidentially taken these observations to heart. While the subject matter will remain the same, and some of the same creative team is on board, a "totally different" Cirque du Soleil-Michael Jackson show is being plotted for permanent installation at the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas, with a targeted opening of "mid-2013," said show representative Maxime (Max) Charbonneau. n
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