Cirque du Soleil
Cirque du Soleil
If you’ve ever wondered what a big, blowout rock concert would look like if its superstar happened to be dead, look no further. Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson The Immortal World Tour is it. A bloated bonanza larded with some of the most popular music of all time, high tech wizardry that failed as often as it astonished, and so-so acrobatic routines, Michael Jackson The Immortal would have destroyed Jackson’s career if he’d had the ego to mount such a production during his lifetime.
On the heels of a Los Angeles jury’s Nov. 7 verdict, finding Jackson’s personal physician Dr. Conrad Murray guilty of involuntary manslaughter, Michael Jackson The Immortal opened in Seattle on Nov. 9. The show debuted a month earlier on Oct. 2 in Montreal under the aegis of writer and director Jamie King. Cirque du Soleil productions have never been known for their coherent narratives, but King’s script, or rather his concept, is baffling.
Co-opting a Cirque du Soleil stock character — the clown/mime/child who stands in for the ringmaster of the plebian circus — King offers the audience a silent leading actor clad in celestial silver, who dwells within the notorious Neverland Ranch, site of Jackson’s alleged molestations in the early 1990s. You wouldn’t know it by simply attending the production, but the overall conceit of Michael Jackson The Immortal is the journey of five Michael Jackson fans — referred to with typical French-Canadian aplomb as “the fanatics” — who gain admittance to Neverland Ranch. They encounter the silver man (who is decidedly not Jackson, but may represent his muse) and embark on a journey through Jackson’s artistic life.
“The secrets of Michael’s inner world are unlocked,” the press materials promise. But Jackson’s real secrets, including a childhood that was distasteful even by Hollywood standards, his gradual self-mutilation by plastic surgery, and his death on June 25, 2009 from a lethal cocktail of sedatives and the surgical anesthetic propofol — none of these biographical details are addressed by the insistently upbeat show. Murray’s sentencing is conveniently scheduled for Nov. 29, just in time for Michael Jackson The Immortal’s Las Vegas opening on Dec. 3.
Reminiscent of David Lynch’s use of images of Laura Palmer in “Twin Peaks,” Jackson flits in and out of the production as a media relic, mainly in outtakes from music videos that got plenty of airtime on MTV during his heyday. On the unusual spoon-shaped stage that thrusts out into the audience, King presents a series of unrelated “world tour” rock concert song and dance routines set to hits like “Thriller,” “Smooth Criminal,” “Beat It,” and the Jackson 5’s “ABC.” They are quite skillful showpieces, if clichéd. The world tour concept makes perfect sense: King has spent his career staging touring arena extravaganzas for superstars including Madonna, Ricky Martin, Christina Aguilera, the Spice Girls, and future Cirque du Soleil candidate Britney Spears.
Michael Jackson The Immortal was created in collaboration with Jackson’s estate, so nearly all of his greatest hits made it into the show. Toting a ghetto blaster (remember those?), a fan, dressed as a comically fat Michael Jackson, and his buddies cavort in Thriller album period costumes, as seen through the seedy eye of Las Vegas, where the show is destined to take up permanent residence in 2013. Crotches are grabbed, a massive LED screen displays images of the King of Pop as a child, and the gilded gates of Neverland Ranch assemble themselves, barring access to the fans’ (dead) idol. The irony of audio of Jackson musing on the injustice of children having their childhood stolen from them is entirely lost on the characters and the show’s writer/director, it seems.
As each musical routine loudly unfolds, a menagerie of bizarre symbols parade across the stage. Unfathomable characters are nothing new for Cirque du Soleil, but Michael Jackson The Immortal takes it to a level that would make Salvador Dalí cringe. A one-legged statue hobbles about on crutches. Jackson’s pet chimp, Bubbles, is caged within an elephant head and swung high above the stage on a wire. A hypersexualized cellist in a sparkly bikini writhes behind her instrument, shredding her bow as she plays faster and faster. And then there’s the stripper pole routine.
The production gives the strong impression that King and the Estate of Michael Jackson worked out the show on their own, then somehow convinced Cirque du Soleil to provide much needed funding and branding. The multi-million dollar entertainment conglomerate out of Montreal has developed a distinct style in its 27 years, but he Cirque flavor was barely in evidence here. Save for the odd aerialist, contortionist, or tumbler that was given a bit of stage time during the less popular songs. Still, even they had a hard time competing with the dozens of back-up dancers, made to take center stage to compensate for the fact that the show’s star is a mere projection on a screen or, at times, a huge and grotesque puppet.
The show was riddled with glitches on opening night in Seattle. Well before the end of Act One, the stage went dark and intermission was abruptly announced. The action resumed 20 minutes later, then ground to a halt again due to technical difficulties. Still later, a sparkly, human-sized Michael Jackson glove danced a little jig, flashed the audience the peace sign, then accidentally flipped all of KeyArena the bird. The performer within the glove quickly managed to convert it into a crossed-fingers sign, but the insult was irrevocable. Even so, with seats costing up to $250, the sheer number of snafus was far more offensive.
“I want to see more of the fat Michael Jackson. So far, he’s my only highlight. Oh, and the stripper,” a nearby man said wistfully. Unfortunately, as the show bled into its third hour, there would be more hagiographic tributes, ballet-style breakdancing, and poignant images of Jackson performing as a little boy. “Remember the child,” Jackson’s disembodied voice urges toward the end. Here’s hoping the Vegas incarnation of Michael Jackson The Immortal doesn’t obliterate that image forever.
If you go: Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson The Immortal World Tour is at KeyArena on Nov. 10. The show opens in Spokane on Nov. 12. $50-$250. For more information, visit www.cirquedusoleil.com.
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