“Beat It “To The Nederlander Rush For The Hottest Ticket: “MJ The Musical”-September 2

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Despite the backlash, two-time Pulitzer Prize Winner for Drama Lynn Nottage endured for writing a serious, human portrait of an extraordinarily talented artist who suffered his own demons and controversy over allegations of drug abuse and pedophilia, it did not deter her from creating a brilliant electric, production. Nottage, a perennial Michael Jackson fan since childhood, does not produce the typical jukebox biomusical you may have to come to expect. This is not a cradle-to-grave story. She allows us to view a slice of MJ’s life through a behind the scene’s glimpse of the development of his 1992 Dangerous World Tour. Her genius is in creating a resoundingly successful musical centered on the pop icon Michael Jackson’s profound artistry while sensitively referring to his failings and travails. Her creation strikes the perfect balance between joyful entertainment, heart-wrenching drama, and humor. She has Michael often displaying his childish, clownish moments.

Roman Banks and Ensemble MJ First National Tour

Producer Lia Vollack, John Branca, John McClain, the Michael Jackson Estate, and Broadway in Chicago have gathered the best creative team possible to ensure a smash hit. MJ The Musical was nominated for ten Tony Awards and garnered four in 2022, including Best Actor for Myles Frost’s portrayal of Michael Jackson on Broadway. Natasha Katz, a seven-time Tony Award winner, won for Best Lighting Design. She is a part of the premier creative team along with Gareth Owen, winner of the Tony Award for Best Sound Design.

Roman Banks as MJ

Christopher Peter Wheeldon, director, an international ballet star, contemporary ballet choreographer, and an appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), won the 2022 Tony Award for MJ’s choreography. This was his second Tony Award. The first was for Best Choreography for An American in Paris. He was the driving force creating the choreography for Chicago Joffrey Company Nutcracker Ballet, setting it in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. I saw it in 2016 and I thought it was a masterpiece mesh. Together Wheeldon and Nottage have collaborated on a thrilling musical you must see at the first national tour opening in Chicago at the James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 West Randolph Street. 

Roman Banks as Michael Jackson

MJ sets are by the 2021 Moulin Rouge Tony Award-winning designer Derek McLane, who was also nominated for a Tony Award for MJ. Costumes are by Paul Tazewell, the 2016 Tony Award winner for Best Costumes for Hamilton. His design team was also awarded an Emmy for The Wiz Live. Projection design by Peter Nigrini, who is best known for his creative, inspired Dear Evan Hansen design, which is changing the landscape of theater with incredible visuals. The hair and wig designs by Charles LaPointe are on point. My friend, not surprisingly, was enthralled with the lighting, videos, and sets.

Roman Banks as MJ and First National Touring Ensemble

Music direction by composer Jason Michael Webb, 2019 Special Tony Award Recipient and Drama Desk Award winner, says that he is obsessed with this gig. Musical supervision is by David Holcenberg. There are over 25 of Michael Jackson’s most popular hits included in this show: “Beat It,” “Billie Jean,” “Bad,” “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” and “Thriller.” The 2022 cast album was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album. The prelude to this stellar production on opening night began in the lobby, where we met Victor Simonson’s (Music Director/Conductor/Keys) adorable son. He proudly pointed out his father’s name on the cast easel while photos were being snapped. There is no better accolade than a son’s adoration for his father’s exceptional accomplishments. The irony was not lost on us what a different twisted relationship Michael had with his father, who insisted his family refer to him as Joseph.

Josiah Benson as young Michael and Anatasia Talley as Katherine Jackson

The twenty-four-year-old amazingly talented Roman Banks stars in the title role of MJ. He may look familiar because he previously played Howie in Disney’s “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” He was also the first (BIPOC) Black Indigenous Person of Color to star in Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen.  On stage, Roman Banks, an avid Michael Jackson fan, is a tour de force expertly portraying M.J. through his dance, vocals, and conflicts over his perfectionism. He is not just entertaining us with his amazing artistry he is capturing Michael’s humanity in his portrayal of the King of Pop.

Derek Bowles as Rob and Joseph Jackson with Roman Banks as Michael Jackson

Nottage cleverly employs a fictitious MTV interviewer, Rachel, played by Mary Kate Moore, to illustrate Michael’s difficult unnatural childhood backstory. Joseph Jackson, the unyielding strict paternal figure, who creates much of Jackson’s suffering, is portrayed by Devin Bowles. He is an accomplished, impressive actor/singer/dancer who also plays Rob, the dedicated and exasperated stage manager, with blindingly fast, effortless transitions. Anastasia Talley is featured as the Jackson Five’s matriarch, Katherine, who birthed ten children. Talley is warm, engaging, and multi-talented. Her voice is gorgeous and her vocal range is stunning. Josiah Benson, a twelve-year-old from Helena, Alabama, is known to be reserved off stage yet shines on stage as a young little Michael. Brandon Lee Harris playing a young adult Michael, gives an astounding, jaw-dropping “Thriller” performance. Every actor, dancer, and vocalist on stage exuded extraordinary star power. The performances were high-energy and flawless. 

Roman Banks and Cast of The First National MJ Tour

Ensemble members and swings are phenomenal performers at the top of their game. They include JoJo Carmichael, Croix DiIenno, Kellie Drobnick, Kyle DupreeZuri Noelle Ford, Jahir L. HippsBryan Jacobi Jackson, Rajané Katurah, Jordan Markus, Matteo Marretta, Janaye’ McAlpine, Jay McKenzie, Kendrick Mitchell, Chelsea Mitchell-Bonsu, Zion Pradier, Ayla Stackhouse, Brian Marquis Watson, Charles P. Way, and Malcolm Miles Young.

Roman Banks as MJ with Mary Kate Moore as Rachel MTV Interviewer

There was a whole lightening vibe to this opening night. I was amazed to experience an audience that was thoroughly engaged and exuberant during every production number. They whooped, hollered, stood up, dancing, and applauding the spectacular singing and dance routines. This did not distract the audience in the least. It enhanced the total wow experience of live theater. I usually like to pick a favorite scene or number but I found it literally impossible to pick one favorite number since they were all tremendous. The inclusion of Michael Jackson’s dancing with his heroes Fred Astaire, Bob Fosse and the ultimate dance sequence of the 1930s Nicholas Brothers was enduringly a sweet and sentimental surprise scene.

Brandon Lee Harris as Young Adult Michael with Cast of the First National MJ Tour

I did overhear that two fellow theater-goers felt some of the dialogue was stilted and contrived despite their loving the musical. Although I agreed that this was an astute observation, it did not diminish the power and entertainment value, and audience love for this stunning musical production you must see. We left the theater mesmerized and energized.

Photos: Courtesy of Matthew Murphy


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